Abstract Things Don’t Exist

This came out of a discussion with Wyrd Smythe in a comment section on Students showing up at college understanding the fact value distinction is a good thing.

It started as a discussion about morals, but this aside developed in the conversation.

Wyrd said this,

What about the fact that we nowhere find a perfect circle, but we do find imperfect circles that lead us to the idea of a perfect circle? In general, nowhere do we find actual mathematics in nature, but we find everywhere facts that lead to mathematics?

And my response is here, edited for better context here:

We never see perfect abstract things: points, circles, cubes, …, ‘chair’. Even when we do the math we only work with approximations – significant figures, or symbols that represent some fictitious notion. Models with many terms even drop less significant terms as intentional approximations, in order to simplify the models, and then, wow, some complex system nearly fits reality.

The Platonic Forms ideas is all wrong. Material objects are not crude examples of pure platonic forms. Instead, idealised models are approximations to real forms. They are simplistic models, compared to an accurate model of any particular real object. And since all real objects are unique (I think) the ideal models are like statistical models – analogous to the ideal gas laws, for example.

I think the platonic perception comes from the human brain history: we awake and become self aware, and aware of our thinking, but at that time we know nothing of evolution. We come ready made. The material world seems messy, and the mental world seems cleaner, more perfect. And we can imagine things we don’t see. So the mental world is an indication of a more perfect reality. The primacy of the mental over the physical is established, so the imagined pure things must be real. But that turns out to be fiction, dreams, imagination, idealistic approximations. We are no more than evolved complex chemistry, sloppy biology, that survives.

Why should we expect the universe to be pure or perfect in any way? Why should we think there’s any sort of reality to perfect models?

Wyrd responded here. And what follows addresses his view as presented, but expands on mine.

“In fact, any real world circle is the approximation of the abstraction of a circle.”

I disagree because abstract circles don’t exist except as conceptual patterns in minds, as sometimes expressed by mathematical correlates. And, since minds are really a brain’s eye view of itself, and brains at various levels are quantised, as synapses, action potentials, molecules, atoms, then there is nowhere where an abstract circle exists. The mathematics of circles happen to fit well with the imaginary abstract circles, and not quite so well with real objects that we call circles.

At the very best, one could say that abstract circles and real circles are relative approximates to each other.

…it’s very difficult to imagine an intelligent race failing to discover a theory of circles. A circle is easy to define.

Yes, I can imagine aliens would figure out a theory of circles, and symbolism aside I would guess it would be the same as ours, or in some for such that the two theories could be derived from each other, perhaps starting with different axioms. But, how would aliens come to a theory of circles if they didn’t actually have any circles to play with. Which came first, pi.r^2, or wheels? Or was it logs? How do brains come to any knowledge without experience. Even what appear to innate capacities, to distinguish between horizontal and vertical lines to different degrees, to recognise certain parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, and acquired experiences passed on through inheritance. In what sense do abstractions exist if a brain hasn’t had some experience that triggers some pattern.

One might wonder about abstractions that are never experienced in actuality – flights of fancy, original art work. The representation, as patterns in the brain, is the real world ‘thing’ that represents the abstraction. That it is a pattern corresponding to nothing in the real world is irrelevant. The abstraction doesn’t exist still; it’s the brain pattern that exists.

Collecting a mass of data and calculating the mean is the act of producing an abstract measure that is use as an approximate representation for the bulk of the data. That same mean value could be the mean of countless slightly different distributions of data from real world things.

Any abstract circle is an approximate representation of many real circles that do or could exist or could be created. It’s a representation of real things. That a mathematical theory works well is an interesting fact. But that in itself does not prove of demonstrate that real things are approximations to abstractions rather than the other way round.

My reason for preferring to use the other perspective is that moves away from the mistaken reification of abstract ideas as pure or transcendent, which are all too often taken to be reality.

“The natural abstraction necessary to enable counting…”

I rather think it’s the case that dealing with objects came first, as an empirical experience, before developing counting. Other animals seem to get on quite well without such abstractions, and surely without abstract maths.

Animal brains that can detect moving objects, that can tell when they are outnumbered, outsized, are processing sense data that does not need an abstraction theory that it can contemplate outside the moment is is using it’s skills. I’m guessing, but I don’t think a lion sits quietly contemplating how better to get the next prey animal, musing on predator-prey motion theory, because today’s prey managed to escape it. And creatures with no nervous system don’t do any brain stuff at all – they are essentially constrained phsyics and chemistry automata. The ‘mathematical’ nature of the universe is something we put on it. It conforms to patterns because of the nature of reality. Aliens will discover circles when they look up at the sky and see a sun or a moon. At a distance they will look like perfect circles, because their eyes cannot see the real edges formed by the horizons.

Having said that, I’m not dismissive of all abstract ideas. But the ones I see having potential as an aspect of reality are quite different. Of course there’s Wheeler’s ‘it from bit’ and Luciano Floridi’s ‘information’, which abstracts away the whole of reality – but they are reductionist views on our reality not separate abstractions to which reality conforms. There are no circles in those abstract perspectives as far as I’m aware – there’s not much of anything.

But proper calculation requires an analog computer with a complexity order equal to the real world. In fact, the real world is that analog computer; it calculates the three-body problem and weather predictions with ease.

Well, it could be digital – the old atomist argument. But even so, circles are constructs in that reality, not a part of it. The reduction of reality to its constituents does not necessarily show us any circles down there, so the maths of circles is still just models of how that lower scale reality builds up into real atoms and real circles made of lumpy atoms.

Note that I’m not claiming Plato’s realm of perfect forms has ontological reality, but I think it has an almost undeniable epistemological reality. If you grant that any intelligent species will discover mathematics and geometry, it almost has to have it.

Ghosts have epistemological reality. We can ‘know’ about them conceptually. But they are not real, as far as I know. This is partly why I’m not convinced by Platonic forms and other neat abstractions like circles. We can actually have imaginative abstractions of messy things too. And things that don’t exist. That seems a clue to me that all abstractions do not exist, and that they are creations in the mind that we invent, and are sometimes approximate representations of reality.

And, you can also say that any species that deals with the real world and real objects will invent abstract approximations to make life easier.

If I design a building, but don’t build it, is the building real? Isn’t there some form of reality to the design?”

Yes. It consists first as messy vague patterns in neurons. It’s committed to paper by the messy accumulation of real pencil lines (or as quantised bits, bytes, words, numeric finite representations in a computer). Nowhere ever does it exist as what we abstract as ‘the design’. We pretend it does. Using the term, “The design”, is no more than using a mathematical symbol to represent a complex expression. Brains that review the messy pencil lines (or printout, or digital screen display, or ‘analogue’ electron display) only ever hold vague mental representations. We juggle parts of the design around, focus on bits, even use language to express numbers in the design. Photocopy the ‘design drawing’ and the ink patterns will differ, copy the data to a different computer and it will be represented still by quantised bits.

The abstraction of the design is no more real than gods.

In fact ‘information’ is an interesting ‘thing’. It doesn’t exist. So, how is information ‘transferred’? I’ll finish with a couple of examples of that.

It’s an abstract approximation to reality. It’s a representation of often quite distinct things that have some correspondence.

Example: Computer Information

When I download an ‘app’ onto my phone, there is nothing on the server computer that arrives on my phone. Nothing. The server computer sends electrons in patterns around its circuits, reading bits from memory. They are used to induce changes in a transmission port that takes electrons from a power source. The pattern of the transmitted electrons down the wire has some correspondence with the patter of electrons representing the app in the server’s memory. The app in the server’s memory doesn’t go anywhere – well, depending on the type of memory: dynamic memory is refreshed, so that the bit pattern representing the app is maintained. In reality that pattern may get shifted around, destroyed and recreated – all depending on the state of the system and its management of data.

In the meantime electrons are going down wires, inducing transformations in yet other wires by transducers. There may be a satellite hop involved eventually, or maybe a microwave link to your local phone cell. None of the original atoms or electrons or energy are present by this time. Power supplies along the way are providing energy, electrons, heat, to make local patterns that correspond to the incoming patterns, and in turn cause outgoing patterns to match.

Eventually electromagnetic signals induce electron flow in my phone’s antenna, circuits decode the data, patterns are created in my phone that match the app pattern on the distant server.

And there is nothing on my phone that was on the server. Nothing. My phone merely contains a pattern of bits that correspond to a pattern of bits somewhere else.

Think about the energy. All the energy used in my phone comes from its battery. The same for millions of phones that have ‘downloaded’ the app. There is not some drain like a tap on a barrel when an app is downloaded. There is a drain, or course, but very little of the energy goes out through the wires in the server network – we’re talking volts and milliapms, and nearly all that comes from a power feed into the output chips, not from ht memory bits where the app is stored as a bit pattern. The energy used by a server mostly leaves as heat.

And that term, ‘download’. We’re used to the term ‘download’, but it’s a metaphor. In reality patterns are copied. In the transmission process the ‘information’ (that is never an ontological ‘thing’) goes through many encodings and decodings. Even the sequence of bits can be out of order because the ‘information’ is transferred in packets, which may be lost and resent.

Example: Shouting across a field.

You and a friend stand at opposite ends of a field. You read aloud a list of common names, and he has to remember them and shout them back, in order. No matter, no energy, that left your mouth, reaches his ears. Sequences of colliding air atoms absorb and retransmit energy, dissipating some as heat, passing some on a motion in the next atom. Much of that energy is transmitted radially, so what reaches your friend’s ear is a tiny representation of the sound that left your mouth. His ear picks it up. None of the air that entered his ear, vibrating the hairs in his ear, none of it ends up in his auditory cortex.

We say you have given him some information. It’s meaningful information to him because his brain has become accustomed to the neuron signals, the patterns of firings, entering his auditory cortex when names are heard. Without that language context all that’s going on in his brain is some neurons are firing, triggering ready made patterns, doing what brains do when they recognise stuff.

No matter or energy that left your brain as you read and spoke these names, none of it entered his head.

Information is an abstract term we use to describe that process. We think of information as a ‘thing’ because as physical creatures that have ancestors that didn’t have brains, when we experienced something it was all physical, chemical, biological. It still is, but eyes, ears, voices, they allow us to make remote physical connections. We don’t need to ‘transfer’ ‘information’ directly, through touch, we do it indirectly, through the touch of air movement in our ears, or the arrival of photons in our eyes.

Is Death Bad For You? No, Don’t Laugh. This Is Philosophy.

Jeez. Another philosopher making hard work of something simple. How Should We Feel About Death? – Ben Bradley, Syracuse University, Published online: 24 Feb 2015

What are the rational constraints on our desires and emotions concerning death? We might rephrase the question in terms of appropriateness or fittingness: what attitudes or emotions is it appropriate or fitting to have concerning death?

The first question was a reasonable one, while the rephrasing is philosophically futile. The term ‘fittingness’ is one of these profundities that is dragged out when to emotionally charged woo is being concocted out of a straight forward question.

A rational attitude:

1 – Try to be blasé about the fact of death. Once it happens you are not going to care very much about it at all. This worry about the value of life not yet lived and not to be lived is childish. It’s not wanting to miss out on something you cannot have. It’s the hankering of what is actually going to be of no concern to you. It is at best an unsatisfied curiosity.

2 – My attitude now is that I would like to be around to see some amazing things happen that I will not get to see. Super duper AI. Space flight for leisure. Brain upgrades. Whatever. If extended healthy life spans were possible I’d consider it. But if they are not, then so be it. I don’t here people that died in 1900 lamenting their failure to see the new millennium. Because they are dead.

3 – Fear of dying is rational. Illness, pain, suffering – they are not nice. I’m slightly apprehensive going to the dentist – it’s not as relaxing as having tea and biscuits in my conservatory. So fearing the unknown possibility of pain ill health is natural. When you’ve seen aged grand parents and parents suffering it puts you off that bit; but reasonable good health is just fine, if not always convenient. It might be frustrating to become dependent too. There is a balance, and a personal decision about where that balance lies, but there is one sure enough, between soldiering on and calling it quits. Dying isn’t the worse thing that can happen to you. Actually being dead is as neutrally good or bad as having never been born.

Thus the question might be rephrased as: how should we feel about being permanently annihilated? For those who are certain there is an afterlife, this question will be merely of theoretical interest, but those who think annihilation is even a possibility should be interested in this question.

Are you fucking kidding me? Philosophers are fucking hopeless sometimes. They can come over all grandiosely sceptical and inquisitive about shit like this, and then have a hissy fit if you suggest that we don’t have free will; or that Mary either learned something new, not having the full knowledge of red, or she already invoked a redness experience internally from the full knowledge she was supposed to have.

Look, how long you are dead when you are dead might be of the slightest interest if there was the prospect of making you undead later. If the Jesus resurrection trick became science and an evil Earth Emperor resurrected people as slaves, then it might be of interest. But, if I’m ashes I’m not me. If I’m a brain recording revived in a copy body, then that isn’t me. That poor sap has something to worry about, but not me.

If anything the very notion of being interested in what happens after death should arouse a far more pertinent question: since my physical structure changes over time there’s a sense in which the me now will not be the crumpled old man I will become with a catheter and a withered brain, so why should I worry about the future. Yes, what becomes me will suffer. But I’m not suffering now. So, those teens and twenty-somethings that feel immortal, that’s a pretty smart attitude.

Does Christopher Hitchens regret all the drinking and smoking that pretty surely brought on his early death? Well, not any more he doesn’t, if he ever did.

Of course some times we can’t help but anticipate the future. We have pension plans, for fuck’s sake. But don’t let it get out of hand. Planning for funeral costs is a curtsey to your bereaved family – unless you can convince them to hand over your body to someone that will pay for it. Tell them to get rid by the most economically convenient method, I don’t know, e-bay? And if they really feel the need, have a party at their house. Planning for your possible long life isn’t an irrational idea. Worrying about being dead is pointless.

I’m into remembering people and events. Poppies, the Cenotaph, … These are good for us as a society to help us remember events in the hope we learn. There a sort of folk education. The paying of respects is like an act of duty, but to us and future generations, by thinking about what someone gave in order to make our lives better. This is a useful process, I think, for the living. But it does nothing for the dead.

The same with personal bereavement: it’s something for the living and their relationship with the deceased, a reminder of what we value, a time to reflect on good times, which is something we seem to enjoy doing. Incidentally, my father has a small plaque at a cemetery, but I don’t visit it. I still think about my father. Now, he was ill for most of my young life and died when I was 18. He suffered shell shock at Dunkirk and malaria in Burma in WWII, so he’s a hero to me. I have his medals. I’m feeling emotional now. But that plaque representing him means nothing to me. His ashes were scattered in the garden of remembrance, but that means nothing either. But this inadequate memory I have of the man does mean something to me. Death of loved ones is significant for us. But quite uninteresting to the dead.

A good way to start thinking about how we should feel about death would be by figuring out whether death is bad for us and why.

I tell you, I fucking despair at the bollocks philosophers come up with. Too much time on their hands. Philosophy, an awfully slow death.

Most philosophers who have thought about these questions have said that death is generally bad for us, and that what makes it bad is that it deprives the victim of more of a good life.

Oh come on! You’re having me on. This is a parody of philosophy, surely. Please tell me it is so that I can laugh with you rather than at you.

The death of Socrates by poisoning was a bit of a loss for his Greek society deprived of his witty way with questioning. But was it that much of a loss to him? Another ten or twenty years, suffering in old age and dying a possibly even more gruesome death? What about the few thousand years since then, what about all that time since he died? What about all he’s going to miss in that great year of 2525, the one we’ll all miss too? Are you regretting not being alive in 2525? Why not, if being dead is such a problem? Well, Socrates would prefer death to the loss of his freedom to philosophise and share his ideas. So death can’t be that bad. And it was unlikely he’d reach 2525, so, good call.

Don’t misunderstand me. I and not a pessimist giving up on life. I’m a biological survival machine, just like you. If anything I’ll probably have an irrational need to cling to life if I’m approaching death rapidly and unexpectedly – the biology of survival is stubborn. But I hold no irrational mystical regard for life. I value the living for being alive as human social survival machines – I’m a humanist, wanting the best for myself and fellow humans. While we’re alive let’s enjoy it.

But being dead is, well, uninteresting, not least to the dead.

We might go on to say something about degrees: how bad death is depends on how much of a good life it deprives its victim from having. Deprivation is a counterfactual notion: what death deprives a victim from having is what would have happened to the victim if she hadn’t died. Given optimistic assumptions about the quality of human life, death is therefore normally bad for people, and it is often one of the worst things that can happen to someone. On this picture death is instrumentally bad for a person, not intrinsically bad for her. Death is bad for someone because of its results, not in itself.

You know when you come across a new word that sounds really good and you figure you could use it without seeming too much of a twat? That’s what I feel philosophers go through in graduate school when the discover ‘counterfactual’. I think they think it’s such a cool name for a cool idea that they just can’t stop finding excuses to use it. It just means talking about stuff that didn’t or won’t happen, but might have happened or even couldn’t possibly of happened but it’s cool to think about anyway. What sort of world would we be living in now had Germany and Japan had won in WWII? Lol. Where do we start dispelling the futility of such a question.

But yes, deprivation in death is a counterfactual, a pretty fucking useless one. Deprivation in life, now that’s more interesting because deprivation could be ongoing, and relieving it might actually make a portion of a lived life better. But the counterfactual to death is fucking useless, for the dead.

Counterfactual reasoning about one’s lived life, when someone close dies, is a fair human emotional process to go through.

It’s about sorting your brain out, from the programmed path it had laid down for you and your loved one, to the new path that you must travel alone. It’s about coping with drastic change. Old couples that have had a long life may grieve, and sometimes it can be so bad that the one left behind soon follows. Lots of memories.

But I cannot imagine how it is for a parent that loses a child, or a teen. Recent news of another young person lost to murder, and her distraught parents on the news. Fucking awful. And the girl may have suffered. Fucking awful. Sometimes the phrase, “they are at peace now,” can be a real consolation when the counterfactual turns from dreadful possibility to actual fact – and the phrase has meaning for both the religious, who imagine them going on to some fairy land life, and for us atheists that know simply that the end of suffering will have to be sufficient.

Once a person is dead, counterfactuals on death are nothing more than cognitive exercises for the living.

The deprivation account seems like it must be basically right. Some have argued for some bells and whistles to be added. For example, Jeff McMahan claims that the badness of death should be discounted based on, among other things, (1) the extent of the psychological relations that would have held between the person at the time of death and the person at the times she would have been getting the good things death deprived her from getting (the ‘time-relative interests account’), and (2) the extent to which the victim previously enjoyed a good life (McMahan 2002).

You couldn’t make this shit up outside a bizarre fantasy, unless you’re a theologian or a philosopher.

How should we feel about death? This seems pretty simple too. According to ‘fitting attitude’ analyses of value, to be good just is, roughly, to be the fitting object of pro-attitudes, and to be bad just is to be the fitting object of con-attitudes. Given the deprivation account of the badness of death along with our optimistic assumption, it follows that death is, typically, a fitting object of a negative attitude. Of course, fitting attitude analyses of value are controversial. I don’t wish to defend such analyses. But even if value cannot be analyzed in this way, a weaker claim may still be true: necessarily, if something is bad then it is the fitting object of a negative attitude. Given the deprivation account and the optimistic assumption, this entails that death merits a negative attitude.

This is such bullshit. But then a ray of hope:

There is one way in which a negative attitude towards death is not warranted. If we want to know how we should feel about death in itself, it seems that we should be indifferent towards it. After all, nothing good or b d will happen to you while you are dead. There should be a difference between our intrinsic attitudes towards death and our overall attitudes. The attitudes that are intrinsically fitting to have towards death are the attitudes it would be appropriate to have towards death considered by itself, independent of what else death brings about or prevents.

Philosophy career advice: Think of some easy to answer question that has a touch of potential profundity about it. Figure out the simple most obvious answer. Spend more time conjuring up a paper that starts with some straw men to tear down. Put the simple stuff in there as your alternative way at looking at things in order to seem relatively smart. Publish the paper, Then sit back, smoke a pipe, have a beer, or a sherry, and contemplate your next great paper in a quizzical manner most befitting your status at your university.

But things are not so simple. One complication is that there are a lot of negative attitudes one might have about death: fear, dread, worry, hatred, and many more.

Look, if you are suffering a painful or otherwise miserably slow death, and the right to die isn’t recognised as a right where you live, then you have my sympathy for what you are going through, and these worries are understandable.

But if you’re healthy with some time to go, and you are still that worried about death, then you most likely have some psychological issues that are troubling you in life that are more significant than your distant death. I would advise that, if at all you can, you pull your finger out and stop being a narcissistic ass.

On the other hand, if you are genuinely suffering from depression and other bad shit, then, again, my sympathies, but get help and do put death on the back burner. Things might get better.

Anyway, on we go. At last, some thought experiments to get our teeth into. There’s nothing like a philosopher’s thought experiments for inventing unrealistic scenarios. But at least this one is pretty straight forward.

Suppose a young and healthy man named Jim steps in front of a bus and is severely injured; he quickly succumbs to his injuries. Is Jim’s death bad for him? It seems plausible to say that it is. But it might also seem plausible to say that if Jim hadn’t died when he did, he would have instead experienced a great amount of pain and suffering from being hit by the bus. So each of the following might be an appropriate account of what happened:

  • Jim got hit by a bus and died. What a shame! He was so young. If Jim hadn’t died, he would have lived a long and healthy life.
  • Given that Jim got hit by a bus, it’s probably better that he died. If he hadn’t, he would have been severely injured instead. He wouldn’t have wanted to live that way.

This is the kind of whimsical stuff you talk about in the pub after a funeral. It’s not a serious philosophical challenge. Note that this isn’t even a completely useful list. Add Had Jim not been hit by a bus he wouldn’t have been hit by a bus and would have been fine.. Or is that too clear for philosophy?

Attributions of instrumental value are fundamentally contrastive. What is bad for Jim is dying rather than not being hit by the bus at all. What is not bad for Jim is dying rather than being severely injured. There is no absolute fact of the matter about whether Jim’s death, full stop, is bad for him, even though context can make an assertion of ‘Jim’s death was bad for him’ true. Context makes a particular contrast, or class of contrasts, salient.

Well, so a philosopher can figure out that suffering might be worse than death, but living a healthy life is better than death. And I presume living a healthy life is better than suffering. I feel an Ig Nobel prize is due for the thought research that provoked this thought experiment and brought us this ground breaking insight.

John Broome puts the point in this way: ‘All the significant facts have been fully stated once we have said what dying at eighty-two is better than and what it is worse than. There is no further significant question whether or not dying at eighty-two is an absolutely bad thing.’ (Broome 1999, 171) Broome may be overstating things here a bit, because it is also significant what would have happened had one not died at eighty-two.

No! He’s still understating the insignificance of death to the dead. And no, it is not “significant what would have happened had one not died at eighty-two”. It has no significance at all once you are dead. The only pre-death significance it has, to that person, is a measure of how fucked up he is, worrying about what he’ll miss after death.

Given that the badness of death is contrastive…

No! Dying is contrastive, with regard to the contrasting deaths that might occur, including, prior to the death, the predictability of the death. There is no useful contrast to the state of being dead.

Do you suffer inordinate anguish over the counterfactual life you didn’t have before you were born? How ‘contrastive’ are you going to be with that? Oh shit! I might not have been born! Fuck, what should I do?

Well, actually I do regret missing out on things from before I was born. Occasionally I have had these moments of false nostalgia. I grew up in an austere part of Britain, and I saw teenage kids in American movies of the fifties, with cars, and diners serving super ice creams. But these are just little moments of irrationality poking its nose in, and they are easily dismissed. A have a nostalgia for what I foolishly imagine to be the glamorous life of a WWII Spitfire pilot, but then I think I could be mistaken about how glamorous it actually was.

But aside from these momentary flights of fancy, along with wanting to be Superman, or wishing I had a pair of those X-Ray Specs from the back of comics, I really don’t think that in moments of rational lucidity one needs to think much about being dead at all. Dreams, lucid or not, can invoke fears that in waking lucidity seem stupid, but dreaming is an odd psychological state anyway, unencumbered by empirical sense correction.

Compared to being dead or the state of being dead, something like the prospective approach to death, going to war and anticipating dangers that could lead to your imminent death, is a perfectly natural survival process. Approaching death, with potential suffering, and being dead, are quite different things, with the former understandably arousing survival fears, but the latter being of no concern whatsoever, except to those left behind.

I do remember, when my kids were young and dependent, I went through the natural parental angst of worrying about how they will go on if my wife and I died while they were young. That unfortunate scenario becomes reality to many children, and I wouldn’t have wished it upon mine. But even so, once I’m dead I also stop worrying about the living. So even my living concern for my kids in the event of my death is only about their continued living, not about my being dead.

So, again, the only living concerns one might have about one’s own death is how it is approached and how you will provide for your dependants. And once dead these matters cease to be worries. A young dying parent could also understandably have regrets about missing their children grow up. But again, once dead that ceases to be a concern. When you are dead any worries you had will be gone, for you, and any counterfactual futures about seeing your children grow are gone for you.

There is simply nothing to concern you about actually being dead. Stop worrying about not existing.

Moving on.

When is a preference rational? This seems easy: it is rational to prefer P to Q iff P is better than Q.

Sounds easy when you put it like that.

Thus Jim ought to greatly prefer living a long healthy life to dying, and he should not prefer living a short life full of suffering to dying (depending on how much pain there is, maybe he should prefer death to continued life in such a state).

The ‘full of suffering’ is not about one’s concern for death but about one’s concern for living, in a state of suffering. Preferring P to Q is now about preferring non-suffering (in death or a healthy life) to suffering, and is no longer about preferring life to non-life, death.

Thinking of it in terms of the counterfactual of what life you missed prior to your birth and becomes clear that preferring life to non-life is quite fucking pointless, and the only reason you are falling for the death problem is that it is made murky by the route to death and the possibility of suffering.

You have changed the point of interest from preferring P (being alive and healthy) to Q (being dead), a meaningless comparison; so that now you are comparing P (death) to Q (suffering life) or P (healthy life) to Q (suffering life). This whole paper is just confused in what it is about.

So here is a simple part of the story about correct attitudes towards death: it is correct to prefer a particular future to death iff you would be better off given that future than if you died.

Why? If you are ruling out a suffering life, so the comparison is life and non-life, then there is no sense in which ‘better off’ has any useful meaning in this context.

When you are dead, nothing matters.

While you are alive and healthy, being alive is good, generally – since our survival nature makes us enjoy being alive, and it is probably contrary to evolutionary selection to make being unhappy enough to top yourself the natural state. Marvin the Paranoid Android is not how we are naturally.

But to say one state is better than the other, when in each state there is no access to the other state, is a totally fucked up philosophical notion. It’s irrational!

In the next section the paper moves on to preference and desire, and continues to get it wrong.

Suppose S, incorrectly, prefers death to a good life. It follows that S desires to die on the condition that S lives a worthwhile life or S dies; so that desire must also be incorrect, since it is identical to an incorrect preference.

This presumption that preferring death to a good life is incorrect is incorrect in itself. It is a neutral comparison deserving no preference. It makes no sense to prefer either.

If I prefer life and decide to live on, I live on not knowing death until later. If I prefer death and can arrange a nice death then I cease to know life.

Of course we can play the counterfactual game again. So, you might say, “Oh, but once your dead there’s no going back, you’ve burnt your bridges!” Well, if you think that then the point still hasn’t sunk in. When you’re dead you don’t give a fuck about burnt bridges! It doesn’t matter.

I guess there will be a lot of loose thinking inspired angst around this idea in some quarters. Maybe influenced by our natural instinct to survive, made all the more confusing by some inspired respect for life itself and a token of religiously inspired guilt at taking one’s own life. But really, if for some reason I manage to overcome the my survival instinct, then what would be the problem with me deciding to top myself? I’ve never heard a rational answer to this that wasn’t loaded with emotional BS. We can give evolutionary biological reasons for why we tend not to do this, but no other reason why we should not.

You’ll note, incidentally, that this term ‘correct’ is loaded with moral indignation about the right to choose one’s own life and death. It’s a very religious theme, with a prescription for life and a proscription for death – the religious love to control.

More confusion arises in section 5, about beliefs.

For example, suppose I do not want to go to the dentist because of the painfulness of having my teeth cleaned. But you convince me that I would be better off in the long run if I go. So I truly believe that I would be better off if I went. Still, I fail to form a desire to go. My failing to desire to go to the dentist is incorrect because it is insufficiently sensitive to my true beliefs.

This is irrelevant, because this scenario compares life with or without going to the dentist. It’s a poor analogy. In this case the failing to go to the dentist is ‘incorrect’ only if you already have a dichotomy where going is correct and not going is incorrect, as some indication of the measure of the outcomes. You have decided that not having tooth ache is good, and having it is bad, and going to the dentist will reduce the risk of the bad and increase the chance of the good, therefore the ‘correct’ path to achieving good is to go to the dentist, and the ‘incorrect’ path is not to go. The comparative states are meaningful here. If you don’t go and end up with tooth ache you can legitimately regret not going, and if you go, find some tooth decay and have it fixed, you can be pleased you did not choose not to go. Ahead of time in either case you can anticipate contemplating the counterfactual and regret not taking that other route, or be glad you did not.

But dead and not-dead are mutually exclusive comparative states. When alive you can’t know anything about what it’s like to be dead. While alive it’s pointless being glad you’re not dead, because at that time you are not dead. Right now, how many other counterfactuals should I be glad of or regret? Should I be happy I’m not a tree? How does this work? What is the point of being happy I’m not dead?

And when I’m dead I won’t be in state to regret not being alive – unlike being alive with tooth ache when I can regret not having gone to the dentist.

In section 7 we get to the conclusions.

Here, then, are some ways that you might have incorrect attitudes towards death. You might fail to be intrinsically indifferent towards death — you might have a positive or negative attitude towards nonexistence considered in itself.

That pair of statements says it all. But it needed a full paper to say it? Sadly, there’s more:

You might fail to have a pro-attitude towards the intrinsic goods of which death deprives you, or a con-attitude towards the intrinsic evils. You might prefer to die rather than live, even though living would be better for you than dying; …


… or you might prefer to live rather than die even though dying would be better for you.

This actually makes sense – you might indeed prefer that, but it is your prerogative to live in such state if you wish.

But what is important and is missed here is the right to die if dying would relieve certain suffering. But also missed, and not supported by the right to die movement, is the question: who the fuck denies me the right to die even if I simply choose to with no suffering persuading me? The reason this doesn’t crop up so much is because our survival instinct usually prevents us taking it seriously.

And we have other aspects to our humanist lives that drive us not to allow someone to be coerced into wanting a death they might otherwise not want: torturing people until they plead for death, influencing vulnerable people to persuade them that they have some duty to die … we have desires that make us guard against that, because that amounts to murder, even if the victim takes their own life in the end.

But, philosophically, since the philosopher put counterfactuals are on the table, what about the counterfactual where there is no coercion and I simply decide that I’m bored with life and and want to top myself. All the stops are pulled out to prevent me. I could get away with it, by some messy suicide.

Not to worry, this is only a counterfactual thought experiment. But the philosophical point stands. Why is it wrong, incorrect, bad, to die?

You might have an attitude towards death that is regulated by an incorrect preference or belief. Finally, you might fail to have an attitude towards death that you should have, given your correct preferences and beliefs. Perhaps there are other ways to have an incorrect attitude too.

Lots of presuppositions about what’s correct or what should be preferred, when they are irrelevant.

There is another case that is puzzling, and might challenge the entire framework within which I am working. Consider the person who feels existential terror or angst at the prospect of death. When considering that at some future time, she will no longer exist, she is filled with terror. She does not obsess about it, but contemplating a future in which she is simply not there is terrifying to her.

This isn’t puzzling at all. I’m surprised that a philosopher can’t figure this out. She simply has a problem that’s interfering with her living. As with any other phobia it’s disconcerting to be trapped by the irrational fear. That’s a psychological problem to be fixed, if she deems she needs it fixing. Do other mammals have existential angst when no imminent danger is present? Contemplating distant unpredictable death seems to be a glitch we acquired with an imaginary brain; except of course it does come along with anticipating danger and threats to survival, so maybe it’s a benefit that has simply got out of control.

Perhaps she’s read too much philosophy. Perhaps she should become a philosopher.

It is far from clear either that a finite existence cannot be meaningful, or that there is any particular link between terror and meaninglessness.

What? Look, if people can’t find enough meaning in their finite natural lives, they seem quite able to invent imaginary after lives to take up the slack. Is this need for meaning another glitch? Again, many mammals seem not to need it. Come to that, I know a few humans that are pretty fulfilled by a pint, some cigs and the occasional screw.

There needn’t be a link between terror and meaninglessness. Many people are able to scare themselves into thinking there is, so they search out religions and other mysticisms, which of course are in the business of promoting that theme.

Fuck it! Chill out. I am here by the coincidence of evolution, and that my parents fucked and this sperm ovum came together, and I grew up and had the education I did, and went on to think about this stuff and decided being dead isn’t a big deal, even though dying might be. The contingency and meaninglessness of our existence is liberating. I am here and this is it. When I’m gone that’s that. It’s really easy, if you just let go of this neediness for something else, something it appears you’ll never have. So much human energy seems to go into creating fake solutions to an imaginary problem, and forcing others to be bound by these existential terrors. Foolish. Wasting a very finite life, by spending a good deal of that finite life worrying about the end of that finite life.

Death, for most of us, is some uncertain but distant way off.

It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small, and the fears that once controlled us don’t need to get to us at all. It’s time to see what we can do to test the limits and break through. No right, no wrong, no rules for us we’re free!

… thanks to a little friend of mine for bringing this much brighter philosophical perspective to my attention …

cue Elsa … Let it go, let it go.

Seriously Flawed Religious Apologetics

Samuel James over at Patheos has put up some apologetics that are supposed to help the non-science Christian. Unfortunately they re really poor at giving Christians good answers to critiques of their beliefs.

Lack of scientific knowledge can leave Christians feeling vulnerable when talking to unbelieving friends about why faith is superior to skepticism.

4 Responses a Non-Scientist Christian Can Give to Science-Based Atheism

These will not help any Christian make his or her case, but will only lead to ridicule. Sorry, but there’s enough of this very same stuff around as it is. You’re still vulnerable, because these points are pointless.

1) We cannot know from science if science itself is the best source of knowledge.

This is not quite right. I know what you mean. There is no way you can prove absolutely from science that science is absolutely the best source of knowledge. Unfortunately you are falling for that old philosophical problem of assuming that it is necessary to prove something in the logical absolute true/false sense. It isn’t.

We’ll come up against this again in your other points, so let’s settle it here.

Humans cannot prove things absolutely. All proofs, including deductive arguments used by characters like William Lane Craig, rely on premises that themselves need proving, and so on back through argument after argument. A particular argument may be valid, but if you cannot prove its premises the proof isn’t sound, and if it’s not a sound argument it isn’t providing assured proof of its conclusion.

In the end, with any argument chain, proving premises back through arguments intended to prove premises, we come up against premises we cannot prove. They might be guesses, hypotheses, hunches, results of experience – whatever they are they are not proved.

So, what we can only ever acquire knowledge by probing and observing the world, coming up with ideas, hypotheses, theories, reasoned explanations, intuitive ideas, imaginative prompts, and testing those ideas against the world. This is empiricism at work. And it’s all about the reliability of results, not about proof in that logical deductive sense. Of course we can use deduction to derive one reliable result to others – but proof is only ever a stepping stone to more knowledge, and not a mechanism for acquiring knowledge.

We know science is the best source of knowledge because it works so well, because nothing else is as productive.

Another aspect of this science business that confuses the religious and sloppy philosophers alike is the extent to which science-like knowledge acquisition is the founded on the only way humans can come to any knowledge. Humans have brains made of neurons, and those neurons work pretty much as peripheral neutrons do. The upshot is that brain neurons are ‘experiential’ components, just as the peripheral neutrons are, and the result is that humans are experiential creatures at every level, and are evolved from experiential creatures without neurons. Humans are empirical creatures. It’s our only way of acquiring knowledge. 

The consequence is that science is no more than a bunch of methods that are based on our empirical nature, enhanced, improved, made more rigorous, in order to make our empirical knowledge acquisition more reliable.

Here’s why this question matters. If the first option is true, then logically, science absolutely is the supreme mode of knowledge, and everything we believe about anything must be in submission to it. The problem though is that whether or not all of reality is ultimately explainable through scientific concepts is not itself a scientifically provable theory. It is a philosophical premise, not a scientific conclusion.

Yes. But that’s not a problem. It’s the way the world is, the way human knowledge acquisition is. We cannot know anything absolutely, so we have to make do with the reliable contingent results of science.

The only way to definitively prove that science explains everything would be to have exhaustive knowledge of all reality, and then be able to explain (using only scientific data) what all reality is and what it means. Such a feat is impossible.

Yes. But I’ve explained why that is inevitable, but also why it doesn’t matter, and why it’s still the best we have, all we have.

Therefore, the belief that science is the best source of knowledge must be accepted on faith, for it cannot be verified through testing.

No! No! No! This does not follow from your other points. While it cannot be proved absolutely that science guarantees exhaustive knowledge, it can be verified through testing that it is the best source of knowledge, and based on these results and the scientific knowledge about our evolved biological nature, that its empirical methods constitute the only way of knowing. It’s easy in principle. Did we observe that the British Comet aircraft was really reliable? No. Empirical observation of planes falling out the skies demonstrated a problem, and more science demonstrated the nature of the problem – too late to save that plane. But that knowledge added to the safety of air travel, as have many other empirical observations and experiments, some of which took more deaths to cause improvements, some improvements coming from better science prior to deaths. That’s how messy science is because that’s how messy the world is for us humans, with our limited epistemological reach.

And just to head off where you are going with this, the contingency of science is not a loophole through which religion can sneak in. Not only is religion not some other way of knowing, it is nothing more than minimising the good methods of science and is in fact making a virtue out of an extremely poor use of our basic methods of knowing.

2) Scientific consensus can and frequently does change. This limits its epistemological authority.

I love the comic way theists make one of science’s graces into a limitation, while extolling religions discreditable obstinance as a virtue.

Look, since humans do not have perfect knowledge (something I think you agree with) we are limited to making the best we can, and then making improvements when we can. A great feature of science, and engineering generally, is that ‘good enough’ for the purpose in hand is good enough. And on top of that, what’s good enough now can be used to make future results even better.

The measurement precision of any instrument was limited by the craftsmanship of the artisan that made it. But then those instruments, that improve the natural inaccuracy of humans can not only make more accurate measurements easier, the instruments can also be used to make even more accurate instruments.

And in science generally, the more tests are repeated, and the test methods improved, and the more modes (branches if science) that are used the more confidence we have in our results.

This is all good stuff. It makes science good for progress. That some older ideas are improved upon or even replaced is progress. It’s a good thing!

And yet set against this we have religion that insists on sticking with ancient ideas come what may. In fact, much to the cost of many lives, having new ideas in religion can be dangerous and even fatal. Heresy is real thing in religion. You charge people with heresy as a negative act against the religion. The charge of heresy in science is a derogatory one in the opposite sense, in that the holding of ideas to be fundamentally unassailable such that a challenge is considered a heresy is a criticism of those entrenched ideas, not the new ideas or the heretic. Religion: heretic bad. Science: heretic good.

One does not wait on science to exhaustively explain something before believing it. If that were so then 99% of human beings on the planet would not believe in the most basic realities of existence, or would be irrational in believing without having exhaustive scientific knowledge.

Well, that’s right. But let’s see where you’re going with this …

If current scientific consensus points away from the existence of God (a highly disputable point, by the way), then who is to say that consensus cannot change? If it can, then science’s intellectual authority is limited, and the expectation that it will continue to oppose religious belief is more a matter of faith.

It’s only a highly disputable point in the minds of theists, who don’t appreciate how powerful science is, and how totally inadequate religion is. The point isn’t that science is limited to some extent, the point is that it is inordinately better than religion. If science was only 20% reliable that’s damned good when your alternative, religion, is 0%.

But, let’s get down to the detail. Yes, consensus could change to favour God – but only when there is evidence of God. This isn’t a a trivial beauty pageant where you get to pick the contestant in the nicest outfit, the one with the robes and funny hats. Just bring the evidence and science will take note. Unlike religion, where evidence is actually a bad thing and faith is de rigueur.

Just a final thought, on this possibility of evidence for God. Your point applies just as well to Islam as Christianity, to astrology, to fairies existing. This puerile play on the remote possibility of evidence turning up to favour your particular unevidenced belief is laughable.

This point (2) is seriously messed up in your head.

3) Only supernatural theism provides a rational justification of scientific work.

No! No! No!

Adding the word ‘rational’ isn’t helping. It’s not rational.

But you do need supernatural theism to have a rational justification of science.

Of course not. We have the empirical evidential justification that science is better than anything else. Remember, we not only can’t have absolute proof, but we also don’t need it. The results of science speak for themselves.

Why on earth would you want to dream up an imaginary supernatural explanation for something that already works? That it works without supernatural explanation is evidence itself that the supernatural isn’t needed.

You do realise this is just a God of the Gaps argument, don’t you? We don’t have absolute logical proof that science is infallible, so you are injecting this supernatural to fill that proof gap. But all you’ve done is filled the gap with a presupposition of a God – you’ve added an unexplained premise – and remember how deductive proofs never prove anything because they don’t have proven premises? You have just added an unproven premise: supernaturalism.

It means that scientific inquiry done on the assumption that there is no higher intelligence than evolved human intelligence is making a value judgment that it has no right to make.

There is no assumption that there is no higher intelligence than humans. We already accept that there might be alien species that are more intelligent than us now. There might be post-humans, trans-humans, in the future that are more intelligent than us now. There might be AI systems in the future more intelligent than us now. And yes, as some remote possibility there might be billions of super-natural gods more intelligent than us, and hyper-natural gods in a higher still realm of even greater intelligence than them – and not a drop of evidence for any of it. Whether it’s aliens, AI or gods, it’s all speculation.

We take modern humans to be the most intelligent creatures we know of because, from evidence, we are the most intelligent creatures we know of. it’s a working conclusion not an assumption. Don’t paint our contingent empirical knowledge with your presuppositional supernaturalist brush.

Why is knowledge better than ignorance? The atheist would respond that ignorance has less survival value than truth; after all, if you believe wrong things or do not know enough about your environment, you’re less likely to survive and flourish. But this explanation only applies to a very small amount of scientific knowledge. There is little survival value in knowing, for example, the complicated workings of time–space theory, or the genus of certain insects, or the distance of Jupiter from Mars.

In a trivial sense you are right. And for all the good prayer does there’s little survival benefit in pretending to know there’s a God. But that’s all irrelevant. Even if our intellectual curiosity is no more than an evolutionary by-product, we are stuck with it. We like finding stuff out. Whether it helps survival or not is irrelevant – as is sex after a certain age, or after a vasectomy or other contraception, but still enjoyable nonetheless. 

Human beings believe that knowing is better than ignorance because they believe that truth is better than falsity, and light is better than darkness. But where does such a conclusion come from? It does not come from scientific principles.

it comes from our evolved nature, whether useful or not. Another God of the Gaps argument is due I suppose.

You cannot study science hard enough to understand why you should study science at all.

Of course you can: psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, biology, …, science is in the business of explaining many things about the world, including why one species does what it does.

To study science presupposes a valuing of truth that must be experienced outside of scientific study.

No it does not. It doesn’t presuppose anything. We discover that we value truth by observing that we value truth. We then dig deeper into brain sciences to figure out why we value things. This isn’t news. Even if we don’t have as many answers as we like we have some, and are acquiring more. No more God of the Gaps, please.

It is only rational to pursue scientific knowledge that doesn’t offer immediate survival value if there is some external, transcendent value in knowing truth.

What utter rubbish! We can hypothesise that truth value comes from the basics of survival – the more accurate, closer to the truth about facts in the world, our knowledge is, the more likely we are to survive. That’s all that’s required. No need to hypothesise transcendental nonsense – which you hypothesise only because you already believe the God stuff.

4) Only supernatural theism gives us assurance that real scientific knowledge is possible.

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga? No! For pity’s sake, he’s not a philosopher, he’s a theologian, with all the rep suppositions that a theologian has that stops him doing what philosophers should do, which is to be sceptical, to engage in critical thinking, to leave your presuppositions at the door. 

We already have plenty of contingent assurance that ‘real’ scientific knowledge is possible. And it it’s not real, if we are living some solipsistic imagined existence, so that all of material reality is only imagined in immaterial minds, then so what? But going down that path gets rid of your God too.

The “evolutionary argument against naturalism” is not complicated, it’s simple, and wrong.

Those two Plantinga facts:

– First, the theory of evolution is true, and humans have descended from lower life forms over time. 

– Second, humans are rational beings in a higher degree and superior way to lesser evolved creatures.

That isn’t that informative. You cannot derive from that what Plantinga thinks he can derive. There is no “tension between these two facts”.

If human beings are a more evolved species of primate, then our cognitive faculties (ie, the parts of our body and mind that allow us to be rational creatures) have evolved out of lesser cognitive faculties. But, Plantinga says, if God does not exist, then the only factors that affected human evolution are time and chance. Based on time and chance alone, why should we be confident that our rational minds–which are merely the sum of lesser evolved minds plus time and chance–are actually rational at all?

This betrays a really inadequate view of evolution, and biology, and physics, and reason.

It’s not just time and chance. More to the point the changes are not independent chance events. They are contingent events. A chance mutation acts in an environment that favours it to not. If it is favoured it’s more likely to persist in the gene pool, and it’s more likely to be favoured if it contributes to survival, or at least isn’t detrimental to it. It’s the selection, natural selection, that does the work of maintaining good chance changes and discarding bad ones.

And, reason is no more than the mechanistic working of a biological brain clicking away somewhat like a computer – and the somewhat it an important point here, since we re not exactly like computers in how we do computation. But reason is nothing more than messy computation using concepts and language to manipulate ideas.

What basis do we have to believe our own conclusions?

We don’t have any basis, in an absolute sense, no logical proof that our conclusions will be right. But we can recognise quite well when our conclusions turn out to work, and when they don’t. We know we make mistakes in this area. Look, Samuel, you and Plantinga have come to unreliable conclusions. Or if you are right then we on the atheist side have come to the wrong conclusions. Either way, we aren’t guaranteed to make the right conclusions, so that alone shows Plantinga’s thesis is wrong. We cannot know we are right perfectly, which is what you’d expect from an evolved organism that wasn’t designed by a perfect being for perfectly rational behaviour.

How do we know we are actually capable of knowing truth more than a primate? 

Taking you to mean any ‘other’ primate, well, we don’t, except in as far as we can show that we are more capable. In detecting the best location for food, the best place to sleep in the forest, then I guess we don’t know some things as well as they do, without artificial help. But on the whole we know we make better use of our brains intellectually by observing that we do – by looking at them and comparing empirically. This is all too easy. I seriously worry about the religious mind that can’t grasp this.

If the only players in our existence are lesser creatures, time, and chance, how do we know we are even highly evolved at all?

Jeez, these are seriously poor questions. We know we are highly evolved only in as much as our science tells us and no more. There might be species out in space more* evolved than we are. Had mammals not become dominant some other species might have evolved to be more* evolved. We know only, from our own observations, that on this planet we know of no more evolved species than us. It really is that empirically simple.

[* I’m playing your game here. Being *more* evolved is a dubious qualifier.] 

It makes no sense to assume that humans can really make sense of their world on a conceptual level if human consciousness arose out of the very world it responds to.

We are not assuming it. We are observing that it is the case. If we are wrong, and, say, we’re actually as dumb as horse shit, then we are doing a better job of fooling ourselves than we thought was possible when we started to laugh at the religious for the horse shit they believe in. C’est la vie. In the meantime, we still think believing in unevidenced gods is dumb.

Nagel agrees with Plantinga that atheistic naturalism cannot explain why human beings can be rational creatures and do rational things that should be trusted.

You do realise that if this is right, then we also have no reason to be confident in Plantinga’s reasoning, for believing in senses divinitatis? Right? You do realise that if naturalism is true, and this limitation you are perceiving is also true, then in a naturalistic non-supernatural universe this Plantinga horse shit is just the kind of horse shit that such limited humans might come up with? Right? The fact that we have this disagreement, between our rational empirical perspective and the theological imaginary friends, this is just what would happen under the naturalism Plantinga is worried about.

If there’s actually a God, and he has given us these brains, then we atheists are using them to show pretty well that there’s no evidence for God, and Plantinga has been put on earth by this God to make such a dumb argument that it actually increases belief in the stupidity of apologetics and the absence of God.

If Carl Sagan is correct and the material universe is all there was, is, and ever will be, then science itself is nothing more than a shot in the dark.

It is a shot in the dark. Enhanced by a science that started by shining Newton’s a light, and went on to invent night vision goggles, telescopes, microscopes, to help us on our way.

Religion is the art of being in a darkened space, insisting on remaining blind folded, and then imagining all the things that might be out there, without ever stepping into the unknown to actually test those ideas. It’s seriously stupid.


Sorry Samuel, but you are way off base. This is only going to encourage non-sciency Christians to keep churning out this sort of poor response to atheism and science all over the net.

Science is contingent, adaptive. That’s a good thing.

Religion is absolute, static, resistive to change. That’s a bad thing.

Heresy in religion is a bad thing, and in some cases punishable. Apostasy, blasphemy, heresy, are all tools to shut down thinking and encourage obedience. The best that can happen to the heretic is that he will be ignored, or scorned, or denounced as a sinner. But he could fact death or torture.

Heresy in science is a good thing, as long as it is backed up by evidence. The worse that happens is people laugh at your dumb ideas. See Deepak Chopra, Rupert Sheldrake.

Moral Opinions and Facts – A Religious Philosopher’s Presuppositions

This opinion piece (irony) by By Justin P. McBrayer, Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts, is full of McBrayer’s disappointment that the education system in the US isn’t instructing students in the existence of moral facts, mistaking them for moral opinions, in McBrayer’s opinion. McBrayer is wrong, they are opinions, in my opinion.

Justin McBrayer

McBrayer doesn’t give any evidence or proof of the moral facts he thinks there might be. He doesn’t even go so far to assert many moral facts directly, but merely laments that some particular moral facts that he believes in are taken to be opinions:

There, consistency demands that we acknowledge the existence of moral facts. If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged?

Wow! I must come back to the hanging presuppositions in that question. How could a philosopher make such a comment? Here’s how: McBrayer is religious.

There’s a clue in bio summary at the bottom of the page

an associate professor of philosophy at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. He works in ethics and philosophy of religion.

And a quick search online:

Under his ‘Teaching’ is a section devoted to C. S. Lewis, the biggest dumb ass theist going with an unbelievable number of people that fall for his guff. I say dumb ass, in that sense I reserve for intellectuals that are really clever and capable in some respects but just fall head over heels for their own religious apologetics.

This is from his ‘Leadership’ page:

Good leadership requires courage, clear-thinking, and fairness. This is especially true in the academy where there are multiple stakeholders, each with their own priorities, and yet a commitment to shared governance. And it turns out that Plato was right: training in philosophy is training for good leadership! I strive to bring the skills I have honed as a philosopher to bear on the problems facing the communities that I lead.

That’s going to be difficult if one’s opinions are preloaded with religious presuppositions. Philosophy is a dangerous weapon in the hands of people that are inclined to believe their presuppositions to be rock solid premises from which they build fabulous valid but totally unsound arguments for things like, oh, I don’t know, Believing in God is Good for You.

So, you might think the remainder of this is a hatchet job on a theist by and atheist. It’s not meant to be. When I started reading it was the bad philosophy that popped out of the page, and it wasn’t until some way through that I thought, what’s the chance’s McBrayer is religious. Then I got to the mini-bio at the end and thought I’d take a look online.

Despite my concern for his religious foundations for his bad presuppositions the rest is really about the philosophy – since anyone can have bad presuppositions and believe them to be true.

Morals Are Opinions We really Care About

This is my view on morality as opinion, which explains in more detail why I object to McBrayer’s view: Moral Facts and Opinions

McBrayer’s Piece

As a philosopher, I already knew that many college-aged students don’t believe in moral facts. While there are no national surveys quantifying this phenomenon, philosophy professors with whom I have spoken suggest that the overwhelming majority of college freshman in their classrooms view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.

I think those students are right, in principle, though this idea simplifies and avoids the extent to which some moral opinions are so entrenched in human minds that they are treated as facts. And as such they become facts: facts about what humans feel to be true, rather than facts about what is true in some external cosmic sense.

… some people might naturally assume that philosophers themselves are to blame. But they aren’t. There are historical examples of philosophers who endorse a kind of moral relativism, dating back at least to Protagoras who declared that “man is the measure of all things,” and several who deny that there are any moral facts whatsoever. But such creatures are rare.

Well, that’s one angle. The other angle is that too many philosophers, like McBrayer, are just as mistaken in thinking there are objective moral facts/truths other than strong opinions.

McBrayer then picks up on this:

  • Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.
  • Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.

He then goes on to explain the problem for morality, in that there’s this binary condition: one or the other. Something is a fact or it is an opinion. Facts are true for everyone, and opinions may vary for each person according to their view on the matter in hand. I do agree with one aspect of McBrayer’s view: some things can be facts and opinions, in that one can hold opinions about facts. But one can also have opinions that aren’t backed up by fact or aren’t really fact based at all. If we’re not careful we’ll get into the murky world of ‘truth aptness’ – a philosophical term that says little more than a statement can be expressing truth or falsehood. It doesn’t quite fit the empirical world but is better left to the world of pure reason.

McBrayer reviews some sources, including Wiki, and finds fault with the fact/truth distinction first. I don’t see McBrayer resolving the problem, so maybe this will help:

  • A fact is something accepted to be true, or near enough to being true, based on the weight of evidence, argument or both. A fact may be contingent and may change over time. The details of the fact may change, or it may simply be considered no longer true and so not an established fact. There may be arenas where a fact is held to be true and others where it is not. This might all seem rather messy – because it is. Get over it and stop expecting too much from facts.

  • True is a binary state, one of true/false, just as easily substituted by other symbols: yes/no, 0/1. Note that the actual state is arbitrary and all that is require is consistency in some system using the binary system (binary logic) – in the preceding I sort of equated true/false with 0/1, rather than the more common 1/0. In electronic systems +/- voltages might represent 0/1 respectively, or 1/0, and the interface circuits will take care of the conversion. Consistency in a larger logical framework is all that is required. It’s not much use, for example, showing that it is true that X, come Wednesday, having everyone expect X come Wednesday, and then when Wednesday comes you say, sorry, I meant Not X.

  • In relation to facts, as shown in the first example, with ‘accepted to be true, or near enough to being true‘, the true/false binary nature of ‘truth’ is often an oversimplification. Some situations are better described by other number systems – such as a percentage, for example. So, that X is true may really be a statement or claim that with all the data we have we think (with epistemological uncertainty) that the probability of X actually being wholly true is 78%. Or, perhaps, 68% of scientists think X is really true – though each of those would be wise to not commit to being 100% sure it is true. And so it goes. Truth, applied to our perceived reality, is rather a misplaced measure, and we often set too much by our poor estimates of it. Lighten up. Embrace uncertainty and contingency.

Then McBrayer moves on to a point I think he gets right:

But second, and worse, students are taught that claims are either facts or opinions.

This is where I agree with him, but not on his deeper view. He gives an example where the following are all supposed to be opinions, in the opinion of some course paper, or the opinion of the author of the paper:

Copying homework assignments is wrong.

Cursing in school is inappropriate behavior.

All men are created equal.

It is worth sacrificing some personal liberties to protect our country from terrorism.

It is wrong for people under the age of 21 to drink alcohol.

Vegetarians are healthier than people who eat meat.

Drug dealers belong in prison.

The answer? In each case, the worksheets categorize these claims as opinions. The explanation on offer is that each of these claims is a value claim and value claims are not facts. This is repeated ad nauseum: any claim with good, right, wrong, etc. is not a fact.

Well, of course they are all opinions. They are moral opinions, mostly; opinions on a moral value – a binary moral value of right or wrong, inappropriate behaviour or not, drinking below 21 or not, and so on. Here’s the list again, with an explanation as to why they are opinions, and under what circumstances they are facts.

Copying homework assignments is wrong. – It is a fact based on accumulated opinion about the morality of copying. But it’s fairly simple to see that one could develop a culture where copying homework is good efficient use of your time. Most of us viewing this are of one culture that sees it as an established moral opinion already, and therefore there is this fact about that opinion – the fact about the morality of the matter is that we in our culture hold this moral opinion.

Cursing in school is inappropriate behavior. – I see no moral reason for holding this to be a fact at all. It is not a moral fact but the moral opinion of those people that hold it to be a moral fact. They are mistaken. The fact of the matter is they hold an opinion that they have elevated in their minds to be a moral fact, but there is no fact about this opinion outside that scope. I can show you the physics of the fact that the school has this rule, by showing you the school rules, and the minutes of the meeting in which it was laid down – these are records of the facts about material events that occurred. But there is no moral fact about inappropriate behaviour. It’s collective opinion that is mistaken for fact. It’s no good telling me that, well, this isn’t a physical fact it’s a moral fact, when you haven’t actually give me anything that is a moral fact beyond the fact of holding the opinion.

All men are created equal. – Opinion. When enacted into a Bill of Rights enforced by law a number of facts come about because of that enactment. It’s the enactment that’s a fact, in as much as it can be backed up. It is also a fact that this is an opinion held by many people. But it is not a fact. Without gross equivocation of the term ‘equal’ you would have trouble actually showing any two people are born equal, even twins, because we are all unique. Being born in a state that gives you the equal right to climb stairs isn’t equal if you are stuck in a wheelchair. Being born equal in any sensible literal use of the term makes it claim about physical facts of birth. Clearly that wasn’t intended. The intent is a political one. A political moral intent. A political intent to enact a moral opinion. But it’s still a moral opinion.

It is worth sacrificing some personal liberties to protect our country from terrorism. – Opinion based on some measure of utility. Good luck with getting everyone to agree on the details. It’s an opinion. While the ‘All men are created equal’ idea is an opinion that can be assigned into law in order to create some associated fact, this one is not likely to get everyone agreeing because left and right have different opinions on it. An anarchist might think no liberties are worth giving up ever. Yet more opinion. [Incidentally here, Utilitarianism is really a measure of utility used in support of moral opinion, or as a means to derive a moral opinion. The facts of a utilitarian argument are facts about the world and its utility to humans, not about some abstract moral opinion directly, and not some imaginary moral fact.]

It is wrong for people under the age of 21 to drink alcohol. – Opinion, written into law. And quite arbitrary. Like speed limits.

Vegetarians are healthier than people who eat meat. – A fact claim. But the epistemological measure of its truth is opinion based, backed up with some science perhaps. This isn’t even a moral value judgement. Of course people make a moral case for vegetarianism, but that ends up being opinion abut the importance to us of the welfare of animals. What if a vegetarian crash lands in a remote place with only meat on the plane. Do they eat or starve? They end up weighing their survival against a principle about an already dead animal. How would they go on if human dead meat was all there was – Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571.

Drug dealers belong in prison. – Opinion. Contested opinion at that. It can only be a fact when enacted in law. Then, when one comes across a drug dealer one can say, as a measure of the extent to which the law applies, that this drug dealer belongs in prison. Elevated to a moral statement this is entirely opinion.

So, all opinions. There are facts that lead to some people holding those opinions, and some fact that are consequent on people holding those opinions. But only the penultimate one is an actual fact claim without direct moral concern in the the actual statement – though moral statements could be added to it.

In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.

Well, that’s just about right, in one sense.

The is/ought barrier is baloney. Hume figured that out, but I can see how reading him makes it seem as though he endorses the barrier as a reality. But I read him as denouncing the foolish philosophers and theologians that see the boundary. I think he’s saying the boundary is illusory because there are no oughts that are distinct from ises – everything is ises. Of course I may have read Hume wrong, but then that only makes him wrong and he should have figured out that there are only ises.

So, what we have in the list above is all opinion, and only one that appears to be a non-moral factual claim about the world rather than claims about what people think are moral truths.

The inconsistency in this curriculum is obvious. For example, at the outset of the school year, my son brought home a list of student rights and responsibilities. Had he already read the lesson on fact vs. opinion, he might have noted that the supposed rights of other students were based on no more than opinions. According to the school’s curriculum, it certainly wasn’t true that his classmates deserved to be treated a particular way — that would make it a fact.

But such student rights and responsibilities are opinions, about how people should behave. They are used to create factual limitations: behave outside this prescribed range and you get expelled. The opinions have factual consequences when established as rules. And it is a fact that some brains hold these moral opinions, but they are still moral opinions and not facts.

Similarly, it wasn’t really true that he had any responsibilities — that would be to make a value claim a truth. It should not be a surprise that there is rampant cheating on college campuses: If we’ve taught our students for 12 years that there is no fact of the matter as to whether cheating is wrong, we can’t very well blame them for doing so later on.

This is baloney. If this fact/opinion issue is causing a problem at all it’s that the nature of the opinions and why we hold them isn’t explained well enough. I can see how post modern relativists are screwing up on education, but moral absolutists like McBrayer are only papering over the cracks of morality with their religiously backed opinions being asserted to be facts.

Indeed, in the world beyond grade school, where adults must exercise their moral knowledge and reasoning to conduct themselves in the society, the stakes are greater. There, consistency demands that we acknowledge the existence of moral facts.

No! No! It’s this sort of absolutist nonsense that gets students with any brains thinking this religious stuff is a load of crap. They figure out that if you pretend these moral codes exist in the hands of some god, but, hey, he never actually strikes me down, then fuck it, I’ll cheat. A far more nuanced approach to morality as hard won opinions developed over millennia gives far more respect to their origins than some jumped up god shouting often contradictory and very often clearly pointless moral prescriptions and proscriptions. So what if I don’t go to church each Sunday? So what if my dad and I use profane language when watching football?

And here comes a chunk of clues about McBary’s thoughts on the matter of morality:

If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged? If there are no truths about what is good or valuable or right, how can we prosecute people for crimes against humanity? If it’s not true that all humans are created equal, then why vote for any political system that doesn’t benefit you over others?

Are you serious?

If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged? – First, why the need to be outraged? I can easily make a moral argument as to why my moral opinion that it is wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees should be assented to. I don’t need to be outraged to make that moral argument.

In fact, it’s a whole lot better if I don’t let my outrage dictate my morality.

It was, was it not, the religious moral outrage of the Islamists that caused the murder? Seriously. Think.

If there are no truths about what is good or valuable or right, how can we prosecute people for crimes against humanity? – We can do that based on arguments to support our moral opinions, based on the facts about human suffering. We don’t need fake moral truths, that are out there or god given. We can explain from a basis of human empathy about the suffering of others why people should not be inhumane. And we can add arguments about deterrence, or preventing the perpetrators from indulging in more crimes – isn’t that enough?

I suspect it’s not enough for the religious, who like to invoke their moral outrage in order to blame and punish. It seems to come with the territory. A bit of moral outrage and smiting and stuff, just like God – the God invented by humans, so that humans can justify their outrage rather than taking the more humanistic approach of struggling to control our outrage.

If it’s not true that all humans are created equal, then why vote for any political system that doesn’t benefit you over others? – Humans are not created equal. That is merely a statement of intent about how to treat people – as if they were created equal. Again, we can give arguments involving empathy and the benefit of giving each other mutually equal say in matters such that the conclusion is that a democratic political system is best, and that then allows us to vote based on our opinions, which may be selfish, or may be for the greater good – voting for a party that taxes more to help the poorer members, or for a party that is known to promote aid abroad, or one that is going to make a more humane justice system.

Many religious systems are inherently anti-democratic to varying degrees. Islam has a pseudo-democracy that favours Muslims. Even Britain, where there is one person one vote, the clergy get positions of power by virtue of being clergy, without any democratic vote on the matter. There is nothing particularly altruistic about systems based on religiously inspired ‘moral facts’. I don’t consider death for apostasy to be a morally good act, but I do consider apostasy to be a morally neutral act.

But at the same time, the curriculum sets our children up for doublethink. They are told that there are no moral facts in one breath even as the next tells them how they ought to behave.

And McBrayer is replacing the moral relativist double think with the religious absolutist think. Both are bollocks.

We can do better. Our children deserve a consistent intellectual foundation.

I agree. But not with Brayer’s solution. here are some points he makes:

Facts are things that are true. – No. facts are things that are deemed to be true, in some context of time, evidence and argument. We don’t have access to the absolute truth. The short cut that we are used to making in this context is that when even scientists say facts are true, and point to evolution, that still has this limitation, this contingency. But some facts are so much more evidenced that others (Evolution v ID) that as a good approximation we take Evolution to be a fact that is true. But never lose sight of the subtly.

Opinions are things we believe. – OK

Some of our beliefs are true. Others are not. – Well, some of our beliefs align with our measure of the facts. Some of our beliefs do not. There are zero facts about God, but plenty of people believe is some sort of God. The corollary of this and the previous example is that some of our opinions do not align with the facts as they are established. When you add to that other factors of bias and other interests it’s easy to see why the debate over climate change hangs on so much biased opinion and less on fact.

Some of our beliefs are backed by evidence. Others are not. – OK

Value claims are like any other claims: either true or false, evidenced or not. – Well, that amounts now to opinions being value claims, and close to true or false, depending on evidence. That means that some opinions have no truth value, are either false, indeterminate or meaningless. So, “Cursing in school is inappropriate behaviour”, is entirely opinion, has not evidence to back it up, and has no determinate value, until you put it in a context whereby one defines it to be a moral truth – but then that definition is a matter of opinion of whether it is a good or bad definition, whether it should be held to or not. All opinion.

The hard work lies not in recognizing that at least some moral claims are true but in carefully thinking through our evidence for which of the many competing moral claims is correct. That’s a hard thing to do. But we can’t sidestep the responsibilities that come with being human just because it’s hard.

I agree. But that isn’t about separating moral fact from opinion, which was the main thrust of Brayer’s piece. He fails on that main point in that he gives us no reason or evidence to accept that moral values are anything but opinions.

Moral Facts and Opinions

Yet another moral philosopher (another religious one) makes a hash of morality. So I wanted to get this down as a summary of my position on how morality is nothing more than opinion elevated to nobility; a common man made special by simply calling him a lord or a bishop.

Before We Get To Moral Facts and Opinions

The is/ought barrier is baloney. Hume figured that out, but I can see how reading him makes it seem as though he endorses the barrier as a reality. But I read him as denouncing the foolish philosophers and theologians that see the boundary. I think he’s saying the boundary is illusory because there are no oughts that are distinct from ises – everything is ises. Of course I may have read Hume wrong, but then that only makes him wrong and he should have figured out that there are only ises.

Let’s start out with a summary of what happened to get us where we are today. This is necessary to get the modern day picture. If you are religious you probably don’t buy this modern day picture, but instead seem content to hold beliefs from a dim and ignorant time. If you’re an old school philosopher you might not buy it either. I’d be interested to know why; but so far any religious and philosophical counters to this following explanation, about our reality and our understanding of morality, have been full of errors.

It’s rather cryptic – as you’ll note by the use of the short hand ‘stuff’. But I think the meaning is plain enough. And this exists in other posts, but I’m repeating here for the context that’s required to avoid any special kind of dualism, gods and excuses for ‘absolute’ or ‘objective’ morality.

  1. Humans as a species awoke to start thinking about stuff, about themselves and their world. This development is lost in history. The first we know about it now is the written history and the artefacts we have from the past, and the best early stuff we have starts with the Greeks. In a way, the lost distant history and the emergence of Greek philosophy is analogous to our individual personal awakening from infancy. We can’t remember much if anything at all about our early life before the ages of two and three, and then a scant few memories remain, some of which may be false memories we’ve adopted from later tales about our early life (we cannot tell), until, like the early Greek works, our parents show us crusty daubs of paint on crispy ageing paper. All we can tell now is that at some stage humans, as a species and as individuals, started to think about stuff.
  2. With little more to go on, humans played with their newly found minds, and invented gods to explain what couldn’t be explained. They also invented witches and all sorts of other creatures, material and non-material to explain away strange events – oh, and to blame people for bad stuff. I suppose this was a natural way to go. It seemed to be possible to invent stuff in the mind that had its own sort of existence, it’s own reality, and yet it couldn’t be touched by the physical world, by the senses. This was the creation of the primacy of thought as the key to understanding the whole of reality. Philosophy and religion were bedfellows, with our senses being able to tell us only some of reality, and not always reliably at that. A lot of the mental stuff wasn’t reliable either, but you couldn’t really test that – you sort of had to take it on faith. And we did.
  3. Not all thinkers fell for the supremacy of the mind. Empiricists of various kinds recognised the folly of some of the thought stuff. Conflicting beliefs seemed so easy to conjure up, and the only reality that smacked you in the face on a regular basis was the material world. It wasn’t as if many philosophers or theologians denied the existence of the material world and our sensory access to it. Their main difference was that they figured there was more; and even wanted there to be more, so much so that they really believed there was more, of other realms, gods, demons, angels. But, with so little understanding of the material world, and our part in it, the balance of power remained with the dualists, and the religious in particular.
  4. Eventually science got going. And then Darwin. And then the brain sciences, from psychology to neuroscience. And we started to get a better picture of what we were and are now. What were we? We started as simple empirical creatures, interacting with the world through physics and chemistry alone. And much of physics is chemistry and chemistry is physics at the molecular level, where the electromagnetic interaction of electrons around atoms with vast amounts of emptiness prevent atoms moving through each other. In small life forms, cells, the interaction is the physical boundary of the cell wall and the chemical transmission of information, food, energy – and information and food and energy are indistinguishable on these scales, they are just interactions of particle elements and molecules, and the exchange of energy.
  5. What are we now? Eventually multicellular creatures evolved variation in their cell types, to become organisms with multiple organs. And, for our purposes here, one distinct cell type is of interest: the neuron. A neuron is just another type of cell that specialises. It’s generally long, and transmits signals along its length – not by the conduction of electrons as in an electrical wire or electronic component, but as waves of ions crossing the boundary along the cell’s length, with each ion event triggering the next, like a Mexican Wave. The neuron can also grow extensions – synapses – to connect to other neurons, and other cell types in our peripheral nervous system. The connections are not direct cell-to-cell physical contact as much as gaps across which chemical signals can be transmitted. We are creatures with brains: a collection of interacting neurons.
  6. The remaining details of how neurons work is not important for now. What is important is this: there is little significant difference between peripheral neurons and brain neurons. The brain neurons are essentially ‘sensing’ and ‘activating’ each other just as the sense neurons connect to each other, to other tissues or to the neurons of the brain. Whatever other cell types and processes go on in brains, this seems to be the most significant feature: brain neurons are sensing and activating each other in such a complex way that the brain becomes aware of itself, even invents an abstract model of itself: me, my mind and I. We consider our peripheral neurons to be engaged in the empirical aspect of our epistemology while the brain neurons are engaged in the mental aspect, our reasoning. But since brain and peripheral neurons are all engaged in the same type of physical and chemical activity we are in fact totally empirical systems, and what we call the mind and its thinking and reasoning function is the outcome of a mass of empirical neurons working together. We were empirical beings all along! We are empirical beings!

Our mental lives are to a great extent full of illusions. The abstract self vanishes when looked at closely, or when the brain deteriorates. We know many of our optical illusions are not in fact tricks of the physics of optics but tricks that the brain plays on itself; or more graciously, the brain is fooled into to believing something is when it isn’t. There is zero evidence that an out of body experience is anything other than an illusion, and much evidence of it being an error – out of body illusions can be stimulated in the lab and the subject tested on the accuracy of what they think they are seeing from outside the body, and they are wrong. We invent gods, contradictory gods, and make awfully bad reasons for believing in them, and yet there is zero evidence of any god anywhere, ever, as far as we can tell.

In the sense laid out above it’s important to grasp that the categories we invent, the physical and the mental, the material and immaterial, even categories of the material such as the distinction between physics, chemistry, biology, are fairly arbitrary to the material matter that we are and that we interact with. When a bullet rips through my flesh we model it as a moving solid object deforming as it tears through flesh, but underlying this mayhem is the electromagnetic force that prevents the bullet passing straight through me with its atoms mostly missing my atoms in the vast spaces between tiny nuclei. When an asteroid impact hits the earth and results in atmospheric reactions that wipe out species, that’s chemistry and physics at work.

In this context we are material creatures in a material world, experiencing that world empirically through our epistemologically limited sense and brain neurons, co-opting our brain neurons to reasoning functions on the empirical data we collect.

This leaves us with some straight forward results. There is no evidence of anything other than the material world, the material universe. There is no evidence that we humans are anything but components of that material universe and not somehow distinct from it or transcendent beyond it. There is no evidence of a magical mind or soul that is distinct in kind from our material brain-body systems. There is no evidence of anything like a god from which we can derive something that might be a moral fact. There is nothing in the cosmos that reveals itself as something that might be a moral fact.

So, what are moral facts?

Moral Facts Are Opinions We Really Care About

There are no gods and no cosmologically available moral facts, that we have found.

Really. Show them.

Don’t just declare that your holy book tells you about God. That a holy book self-declares its own truth should be setting off big alarm bells in your epistemology. A liar writes a book that declares the liar is telling the truth? How would you distinguish a liar’s bible from a genuine bible? Evidence? Well, where’s this evidence? Will it lead me to Josephus, or will you use the reasoning of William Lane Craig, who will then lead me to Josephus and other nonsense? C. S. Lewis? Oh please. But by all means, let’s go down a few of those rabbit holes if you like.

Are you a non-theist moral facts person? Are your moral facts absolute, written in the cosmos? Where? What physical laws best model your moral facts?

If you’re still here, then this is what moral facts are …


We can take facts to be truths or near truths about the world, or something along those lines. That sounds a bit vague, and that’s because even the most solid facts we have are vague in detail if not in appearance. How do we establish facts? In one of two ways mainly, and often in some combination.

Inductive Evidence

Arguments from induction have a bad rep in philosophy, but that’s the fault of philosophy. Remember the primacy of thought, the supremacy of the mind that I mentioned earlier? That’s where this erroneous philosophical misjudgement comes from. The black swan argument has a lot to answer for.

I see only white swans. I confer with other people and they too see only white swans. We don’t presume we’ve seen all swans in the world, so we conclude, tentatively, perhaps confidently, but contingently, that all swans are white. We have induced, from several, maybe many, particulars to the general case that all swans are white. Fact: all swans are white.

But then someone tells us there are black swans in the southern hemisphere, and maybe brings back a pair to Europe! Oh no, our fact isn’t correct any more! What the hell happened?!

Induction worked, that’s what happened. We contingently concluded that all swans are white, based on the ones we’d seen. It was inductive: arguing from the particular evidence, contingently to the general case.

And now we adapt our argument and the result is a modified. Fact: all swans indigenous to Europe are white.

The basis of the inductive argument is simple:

  • Collect evidence
  • Form a contingent argument from the particular evidence collected to the general case
  • Declare the general case as a contingent fact
  • If conflicting evidence comes in, adapt the argument and the details of the fact – and if the new evidence makes the argument and the fact useless, abandon it

You will find that people like David Deutch will make a fuss about how bad induction is, that isn’t how science works; and many philosophers will tell you all about the ‘problem of induction’. They are talking bollocks, because there is no problem with induction unless you use it incorrectly – that is, if you expect it to prove anything beyond doubt. It doesn’t.

Induction is a contingent argument based on particular evidence in order to make some useful general statement about the world, and it’s adaptable, correctable. What could be more useful to human beings that are tiny creatures trying to understand the world the best we can with incomplete and fallible knowledge?

Deductive Reasoning

Here we come to the other side of the philosophical supremacy of mind screw up.

Deductive reasoning is based on logic. The binary stuff: 0/1, true/false, yes/no. Deductive arguments take a set of premises and using strict rules argue to some conclusion. That sounds pretty good. We can get from something we know and really reliably, absolutely, prove the conclusion, right? Wrong. That absolutely bit – that’s where it’s wrong.

A deductive argument is valid if the conclusion cannot be false if the premises are true. A sound argument produces a conclusion that is absolutely true if the argument is valid and the premises absolutely true.

That’s just fine, but there’s that absolutely again, but here it is more clear that the soundness of the argument depends on the absolute truth of the premises. In other words, the conclusion is contingent on the validity of the argument and the truth of the premises. This great deduction stuff is contingent after all. But our understanding of at least simple arguments is rock solid – if we can rely on logic at all.

The problem for deductive arguments sits squarely in the contingency of the premises. And so for any argument, we have to be able to prove its premises too, with another argument, and then that argument’s premises too, and on it goes back up the line of reasoning – all necessary for a sound argument and our ultimate conclusion we want to prove.

And so it all falls down. We cannot prove all premises in a chain of arguments. Somewhere along the line we rely on either a guess, some arbitrary decision, some assertions by definition, or an inductive argument from observation.

Some premises, in mathematics, for example, are called axioms. What are they? They are premises we take to be true, either because we have learned, inductively and deductively over a lot of work that they appear to be true, or because intuitively they seems to be true and we haven’t had good reason to reject them.

Intuition can sometimes be good. But what is intuition other than the physical brain having established some idea about what might be the case. We don’t know why a particular intuition exists – though in some cases psychology and neuroscience, and perhaps anthropology, can give us some ideas. But many intuitions are shown to be flat out wrong, so they are not arbiters of ready made truths. Will someone point this out to Alvin Plantinga – sensus divinitatis my arse – an intuition of having an intuition that becomes a presupposition that we have that intuition, that … LOL!.

What about scientific foundations? They are taken from observations about the world, and a few trial and error guesses, hypotheses, that someone then tests, and finds to be good enough.

Are there any absolute truths that we can use as premises? None that I know of. Really, none. There might be some we assume to be true because it really feels as though they should be true. But I bet in all cases it can easily be pointed out what guess or other arbitrary choice is being made, or how it’s based on some observations about the world.

In the end deduction is nothing more than a tool to get us from one set of contingent facts to another set in a reliable manner. The proof of deduction is localised to the argument and does not prove the premises; so its reach is limited.

And so always, we are empirical humans, observing the world, even empirically reasoning about it, since our brains are full of empirically operating neurons interacting to carry out reasoning processes. And all our knowledge so acquired is contingent.

Moral Facts

So, what about moral truths, are there no absolute moral truths? What about ‘it is wrong to kill‘, makes that an absolute moral truth, an objective moral fact? [Oh, no, objective, another of those weasel words we need to clear up. I’ll come back to that.] But, in the mean time, when it comes to the ways in which the term ‘objective moral fact/truth‘ is often used, no, there are none, they are all contingent, and when we look closer they are opinions.

Humans evolved to have the brains we have, to build the social structures we do, to have kids, and family. Our brains work using reason, now, but in many ways they are still very much like the brains of our animal relatives, subject to emotional stirrings, feelings that make us feel, that make us decide for no apparent rational reason – though we might rationalise our reasoning to fit our emotional decisions after the event.

When we get together and decide that killing each other is a bad idea we do that because we feel that. We feel it about ourselves, because we are survival machines – hey, who wants to be killed? We have evolved to have empathy for each other, and we have developed a theory of mind whereby we think that other people behaving like us think and feel like us and they don’t want to be killed either.

This isn’t necessarily something that we all figure out in some rational instant. It’s what grows on us personally, and what we have learned through our cultural past and which is passed on to us in turn through our moral systems.

That cultures have tended to invent gods as authority figures to authorise these rules seems obvious now. We are varied humans, and the killing and not killing business wasn’t a hard and fast evolved feeling, so some of us had more of the not killing while some had more of the killing. It makes things a lot easier if you invent a god that tells us we should not kill. It’s also handy if that god tells us under what convenient circumstances it’s good to kill; and that makes for a very handy self-sustaining system of bullshit if that god is supposed to authorise the killing of people that don’t believe in that god and his non-killing rules.

It’s fairly easy to see how many conflicting religions can invent the characters of their own gods for the sustenance of those religions and the cultures that they bind together. It’s fairly easy to see that within the context of some general feelings about killing, different cultures can come to enhance their morality giving god stories to suit their own particular circumstances, and acquire some seriously dumb arbitrary moral rules along the way.

It’s fairly easy to see that without evidence for these gods that the moral facts attributed to them are nothing of the sort.

All human moral facts are based on opinions humans have about how other humans should behave, and if maintaining such benefits to us necessitates agreeing that we must be mutually subject to these rules, then that’s fine. We all get along by sharing some moral opinions.

But I like strawberry and you like chocolate, so who is right? If moral opinions are just like that, aren’t they easily argued against? Doesn’t it mean someone can just say, “Sorry, in my opinion killing is good, so I’m going to kill you.”

Yes it does.

That’s precisely the problem with morality. It is all about opinions just like that. But the thing is, many if not most of us are survival machines, and we like an easy life, so most of us are prepared to submit to the general opinion that killing is bad.

In my opinion, formed from my personal emotional feelings about my survival, the survival of my children and parents, the survival of my friends, my protective society, killing is always bad news, if not for me then for someone in my society, and I can empathise with that. That’s why killing is bad. It’s a feeling, an emotion, a reasoned argument as to why we all should not kill – an opinion based on all that, such that in my opinion killing is wrong.

I have invented an ought as an emotionally charged is.

What about eating pork? Nope. That does nothing for me. But my Jewish and Islamic friends feel otherwise. Some might pass it off as a cultural requirement rather than a moral proscription, and that is exactly what it is; but for many it’s an opinion elevated into a moral fact, for them.

So, here we have two moral facts that have been elevated from mere opinion: not killing and not eating pork. One is more widespread in its acceptance than the other. The latter seems more obviously a relative moral fact, more like an opinion. To may Jews and Muslims the avoidance of pork is more than an opinion, it is a moral fact.

Moral relativism! But this is descriptive moral relativism rather than prescriptive moral relativism.

I can observe and describe a relative matter of moral fact: some people think eating pork is good, some think it is wrong. But, I do not subscribe to an absolute unbridled prescriptive moral relativism. I would suggest and argue that Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is morally wrong. That is an opinion of mine based on my observations of reports of how harmful it is, and given my low opinion of the moral merits claimed of it, I feel I can argue that my moral opinion is a worthy one.

A moral fact is only an opinion given some extra emotional status, sometimes backed up by arguments from evidence, sometimes backed up by the belief in some imagined god that sanctions the moral fact. But in the latter case the claim that there is a god is itself based an opinion, so there we have an opinion that there’s a god and an opinion that this god dictates some moral facts – but that’s opinion nonetheless.

That most humans feel very strongly about the ‘not killing’ moral opinion, such that they hold to it and elevate it into a moral fact, does not stop it being an opinion. It is an opinion common to most if not all humans.

Suppose there is some alien race of beings that do not have our empathy and other brain tools helping us survive as a group, but rather use some other facts and reasons upon which they build their societies. What if an alien race exists whereby the females always bite off the heads of the males after mating, or where the female lets her offspring eat her, or where reproduction is non-sexual and killing is an enjoyable sport? Where does our ‘not killing’ prescription fit into the bigger picture?

As such, our moral codes are arbitrary in the cosmos, but particular to us, as far as we know. Note that this is an inductive argument: it is wrong to kill because all the creatures that can think about this stuff that we have come across so far tend not to like killing. It is contingent upon having a majority of humans that feel this way. It is contingent upon us putting in place systems that counter our occasional frustration or anger that incites our wrath that in turn incites us to kill our friends.

Objective/Subjective Moral Truths/Facts

The religious or cosmologically determined objective moral truths are nothing of the sort. They are the subjective human opinions about the sources of morals.

Some humans feel so strongly about these sources of morality that they treat these opinions about sources and opinions about morals as if they were objective moral truths, as if the facts about these moral ideas can be found, somewhere out there, in or from God, or in the cosmos – but they never are found there, they are only ever imagined to be found there.

But, it is a contingent observable fact, an objective fact, that humans have on the whole come to treat the requirement not to kill as a moral fact.

Humans have invented and hold to a subjective (personally, and culturally) moral opinion, that we should not kill, and hold it so strongly that it has become a somewhat sketchy but generally acceptable objective fact about humans.

But note the important distinction here:

  • That killing is wrong is a strong opinion held by humans.
  • It is an objectively observable fact that many if not most humans have that opinion.
  • It is an objectively observable fact that many humans feel so strongly it, and are so unable to see the source of our moral opinions, that they take killing to be wrong as an objective fact about the cosmos or about what gods think.
  • It is not an objective fact that killing is wrong in any sense other than the sense that it’s a strongly held opinion.
  • It is an objectively observable fact that many humans will find convenient exceptions to this general rule that they hold to, that killing is wrong.

We, as humans have opinions about morality and concoct subjective facts. The above are the observable objective facts about the subjective facts of morality that we concoct. They include some explanation for why humans think there are moral truths independent of that, and some explanation about the ways in which we are mistaken.

This subjective/objective business seems to confuse some, but it’s fairly straight forward once you get it, so it’s worth restating it:

  • There are objective discoverable facts about humans.
  • One such (simplified) objective fact is that humans concoct subjective opinions they sometimes feel are objective facts about the world.
  • There is no discoverable (or discovered as yet) cosmological objective fact that it is wrong to kill.
  • There is a human-relative subjective opinion that killing is wrong, and this is (likely) to be the result of evolutionary and social objective facts about human development that we have been discovering.

Moral Consequences

The consequences of all this can be disconcerting to theologians and philosophers alike, and to many people that don’t think about this stuff much.

Is morality that arbitrary?

It seems that arbitrary, on the scale of the cosmos. The stars do not appear to cry out when humans kill each other in large numbers. In fact no other animals seem to care either. We are the only ones that appear to care, if we do at all. Of course, there could be some small scale operation of the universe, on the scale of physics and chemistry, such that when biological brains evolve in groups of sexually reproductive animals like us there is a tendency to prefer not killing over killing, based on the evolution of survival and empathy and theory of mind. But we really don’t know that this is how brainy species must evolve.

But, of course, it’s not that arbitrary, for us. It is the case that humans do want to survive, they do have empathy, have a theory of mind, and this and other stuff all comes together to make us create cultures (many times, independently) where ‘not killing’, at least within the culture, is valued and elevated to a moral code. But that’s about as objective as it gets.

Does that mean there is really nothing stopping you killing when you want to?

No, not really, not in some cosmic sense. Go ahead.

But, we have known for a long time that some people are prepared to kill and have no problem doing so. We have called them all evil in the past, but now we know of some categories of human brain that do not have the inhibitions most of us have. Some people have brains that have no problem killing, and it’s perhaps to the credit of our moral systems that they don’t kill more often. We have built police services, armies, laws, courts of law, prisons and lots of other mechanisms to persuade those of us not convinced by the not killing code to actually not kill. But it takes a particular type of mind, or a mind under some particular conditions, to actually kill; and so mostly we don’t kill. Except for a number of very densely populated cities and some areas of conflict, like war zones, killing is quite rare. There are about 3 million people living in my Greater Manchester home, and not so many people are murdered – it’s news when they are. Even in cities with a high murder rate, it’s still a tiny fraction of the city population that do the murdering, and very few murder more than a small number of times. War zones are exceptions and news. And yet, when it comes to hand to hand combat the killing is small scale, and so only weapons of medium or mass destruction kill many people at once. The Nazis were a modern exception.

And it seems some otherwise very good people can be persuaded to kill quite easily. Look at some of the smart young kids persuaded to join ISIS and kill for their religion.

Religions have both helped prevent killing but have also been a significant excuse for killing. And still are. They have outlived their overall utility. We need to improve education with philosophy and morality and science, to explain who we are and why we don’t want to kill. The naturalistic reasons presented above are enough. Develop those into humanist principles and we don’t need religion.

The non-religious answers aren’t absolute, and are not guaranteed to stop all the killing. But religion doesn’t stop it anyway, clearly. It seems like there’s a good chance that a better education, a reduction in religious indoctrination to remove the temptation to allow religion to increase divisiveness and encourage killing, could move us to a generally better world.

But we have to understand what morality is, and why we want it. We have to get rid of this religious scaremongering that tells us we’re off to hell in a hand cart were it not for religion. It’s bollocks. We can have moral opinions and reason about them to improve them. And we can elevate them to moral codes of conduct that are backed up by law.

We don’t need to reify morality into some cosmic or god given truth or fact. The objectivity of our morality lies within the personal subjective experience of our common human nature. We may have only contingent facts and truths that we must adapt in the light of evidence – but that’s all we have. We are moral humanists.

#PseudoLiberals Go After New Atheists

I’d describe #PseudoLiberals as liberals that have something of the Post Modern Relativism about them. They are individuals that form a loose collective that think they are being particularly good lefty liberals by giving unbounded respect to those playing the offence game in the face of criticism – common with regard to the offended religious.

Their genuine concern for the oppressed and persecuted fogs their view of the very oppressive and persecutory practices of some the people they seek to support or the belief systems that they hold to, and will even blame valid criticisms of the minorities’ beliefs and label the critics as persecutors.

Nothing should prevent reasonable people objecting to any immoral practices that any group engage in, and there should not be a problem with criticising their ideas – especially when those ideas are going to govern their actions towards others.

From honour killings and FGM, to illegal attempts to implement Sharia law, and even to many of the tenets of Islam that are essentially terror tactics: apostasy, blasphemy, heresy, takfir, stoning adulterers, there is much that a western democratic liberal has reason to object to in Islamic belief and practice – no matter what the race, skin colour, origins or religion of both parties to the dispute, believer in the dogma or critic of it, might be.

For the record, because one just has to spell it out, repeatedly …


and, even though I will argue with them on philosophy, science and religion, THIS IS MY TYPE OF MUSLIM!

But take this, from the Quran, 24:2

The [unmarried] woman or [unmarried] man found guilty of sexual intercourse – lash each one of them with a hundred lashes, and do not be taken by pity for them in the religion of Allah, if you should believe in Allah and the Last Day. And let a group of the believers witness their punishment.

If this is acceptable to you, as a Muslim, or even if you want to come up with some stupid theological scholarly (LOL!) reason for why it might be acceptable in some context (there’s always that slippery context), then you are an anti-humanist I have strong issues with. If your holy book is so inerrant that this cannot be seen as an error, then we have issues. If you are a Muslim that manages to disown this and all the other hateful crap, then I marvel at your cognitive contortions, but we’re OK, at least from my perspective. Still think your religion is daft.

While #PseudoLiberals generally agree with the criticisms levelled against the practices mentioned above, and the many atrocities carried out in the name of Islam, they are often reluctant to express that publicly, and they make a lot of noise when someone does – shooting the messenger, albeit metaphorically, which isn’t always the case with disgruntled Islamists, sadly, and that’s sort of the point, isn’t it.

A lot of the hand waving seems to be linked to the western guilt of the #PseudoLiberals – quite valid in itself often enough, but there’s an all too easy move they make from one unconnected thing to another. So, no, New Atheists are not promoting or excusing western state sponsored terrorism, as one #PseudoLiberal implied, just because that’s not the area of expertise or main interest of New Atheists. The clue is in the name, New Atheism focuses on theism and a-theism, and politics in that context. As I said above, many of the New Atheists are humanists, and in other contexts will also criticise or agree with the #PseudoLiberal criticism of our western governments’ state policies and practices. But that this isn’t central to their work doesn’t mean they are denying such criticism.

#PseudoLiberals aren’t immune to their own pride contributing to the false representations of New Atheists. The way this often goes is that the #PseudoLiberal will jump on some bandwagon of criticism of New Atheists, and when shown to be mistaken they are more likely to keep digging that hole rather than weigh up the arguments fairly. It’s unbelievable how often they’ll misrepresent, be corrected, and then go on to misrepresent with the same factually incorrect material. Contrast this with both Dawkins and Harris, who often correct or explain, and are quite humble in saying, well, yes, I could have said that better, or I retract that. Rare from #PseudoLiberals.

In the case of New Atheist criticism of Islam, the #PseudoLiberals have heard the duplicitous cries of Muslims being offended and they work themselves up into such a frenzy that they would rather propagate lies about New Atheist critics of religion than actually take the trouble to face the many dilemmas that arise from good people believing truly awful things. They are able, often in a single statement, to condemn the violence of the religious, claim it’s nothing to do with religion, and blame New Atheist for that violence by the explicit use of misrepresentation.

Being offended is the heads up public victimhood side of the manipulative coin, with the terror tactics of apostasy, blasphemy, heresy and Takfir emblazoned on the tails side. The #PseudoLiberals are cheats playing with a double headed coin.

#PseudoLiberals engage in the limp logic that manages to accuse New Atheists of beliefs they don’t actually hold, while denouncing the violent actions of Muslims, and yet excusing the horrendous beliefs inherent in religion, particularly in Islam, under the banner of tolerance and respect.

Some Examples of the Problem

These are the arguments made against New Atheists following events like #CharleiHebdo and #ChapelHillShooting.

New Atheists Criticise Islam

#PseudoLiberals assert that New Atheists hate all Muslims. And despite the explicit explanation of why this is not so the #PseudoLiberals continue to spread this lie.

Lone Atheist Hicks Kills Muslims

Hicks had been in some dispute with the victims, over what seems a trivial (compared to death) matter of parking, and it has also been reported by a resident of his condominium that he has expressed “equal opportunity” anger, but the full story hasn’t come out yet. Although there’s a macho element to his Facebook page, and a single (as far as I know) picture of a gun, his page is mostly full of the humanist arguments against religion generally – and it’s hardly what could be called hatred, and in fact is full of quotes expressing very liberal and humanist views. The only intolerance that’s obvious is the intolerance of intolerant religions.

The reason for the shooting remains a mystery for now as the police investigation continues. And desipite his wife saying that in her opinion it really wasn’t a hate crime of religion or race, that hasn’t stopped the #PseudoLiberals making their own uniformed minds up.

#PseudoLiberals have decided that the very humanistic aspects of New Atheism, and Harris and Dawkins in particular, are not sufficient reason to believe they are anything but pedallers of hatred and the direct or indirect cause of this act by Hicks. New Atheists incited this violence.

The New Atheists very clearly criticise Islam, but are explicitly not racist or persecuting of Muslims, and not even claiming all Muslims follow all tenets of the Islam as criticised. But none of that matters to #PseudoLiberals .

Some Muslims Kill Lots of People, Citing Islam

Some Muslims kill people for criticising Islam in terms that upset them. Some critics of Islam draw cartoons, and some Muslims kill them for it, or attempt to kill them for it, or claim they should be killed for it. Some Muslims kill other Muslims for not being the right type of Muslim.

#PseudoLiberals are sure to condemn the killing. But here’s where the logic gets scarily bizarre, because according to #PseudoLiberals:

  1. The culprits are not true Muslims and were not doing it in the name of Islam.
  2. Much of this killing is the fault of New Atheists like Dawkins and Harris. Why? Because they excessively criticise a beloved prophet which offends the Muslims; and worse, these New Atheists blame all Muslims for the killing, and in fact the New Atheists claim all Muslims are terrorists.

Lies, but no matter, the #PseudoLiberals have made up their minds.

Now, get this; think very clearly here: it seems to me that (1) and (2) just don’t sit right. If the killers are not true Muslims and didn’t do it in the name of Islam, then in what way are critics of Islam responsible for those killings? How have they even contributed to it?

Imagine these scenarios, thought experiments to show the total logic fail in the above #PseudoLiberal nonsense:

1 – Glenn Greenwald makes a career living off the revelations of Snowden on the spying activities of the NSA. Fair enough; it’s to our benefit that he does that, right?

2 – But then some guy reads Greenwald, and agrees with him on how bad the NSA is. He’s a #Greenwaldian. But this guy then learns some spying techniques and uses them against innocent citizens. And then people that don’t like Greenwald claim it’s Greenwald’s fault for inciting the spying of the #Greenwaldian. Would that wash?

3 – And then some NSA agents kill some liberals that have also published some of the Snowden material, by presenting it in cartoon form. And people that don’t like Greenwald claim 1) The killing was nothing to do with the NSA, and 2) It was Greenwald’s fault for revealing the NSA antics in the first place. Would that wash?

The Culprits

Who would make such dumb fucking arguments? Here’s a list of some of the #Greenwaldian characters.

Seems this list is growing. I need an index into it:


Glenn Greenwald

The man himself. Just follow him and he’ll cough up phlegm soon enough. Here’s an example where he’s more interested in having a dig at Harris than looking at what Harris and Maajid Nawaz are trying to do. Nawaz is an inconvenience in the #Greenwaldian narrative.

Greenwald has so convinced that himself that Harris is a racist that Greenwald thinks Harris can be friends with ‘brown people’, like Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali only for self serving purposes. Opportunist Greenwald judges others by his own standards, or at least by his own biased expectations.

Reza Aslan

Simply denies anyone actually believes any of the literal religious stuff anyway, and blames New Atheists, and Harris in particular, for stirring up nonsense about religiously motivated violence. In denying religion does much motivating it makes you wonder what Aslan thinks it’s good for. Does it not motivate people to do good? Not sure how you can have one without the other if the religious texts contain both incitement to do good and to do violence. But that’s the logic of #PseudoLiberals for you.

Never slow to hop on TV and smugly and authoritatively denounce Sam Harris with a bunch of repeated misrepresentations. Comes across as a nice guy, but he’s pretty sly.

In the case of #CharlieHebdo, he did condemn the killings, and made a wider point about the problems within Islamist groups, informed by Wahhabism. And that’s exactly the kind of criticism New Atheists make, but then he says this:

“What really I think puts an obstacle in the way is opinions like Ayaan [Hirsi Ali]‘s and so many others in the political and the media mainstream who continue to say that 1.7 billion people are responsible for the actions of these extremists.”

Which is the fucking problem. Who the fuck in the New Atheists has said 1.7 billion Muslims are responsible for these actions? Where he continues to fail is not accepting that it’s these extremists that are following the texts, having accused Harris elsewhere of reading the Quran literally.

Well, yes, Harris is listens to extremists say they are following the texts, looks at the texts and says, yes, I can see how they get that, so the text is the source of their understanding of Islam – the text is Islam because that’s how the texts define Islam.

It’s all well and good Aslan saying most Muslims don’t follow the text, when even many ‘moderates’ agree with it in principle, because it’s inerrant. There’s a double speak that goes on in Islam and its interface with the western world, and Aslan contributes to it.

Too few Muslims are facing up to this duplicity, but thankfully some are, and for the record, here’s a couple of groups that are:

On the whole I’d say Aslan’s self serving mixed messages are part of the problem.

Some have called out Reza Aslan’s duplicity.

Rebecca Watson

Didn’t expect to have this critic of religion on the list? But on Chapel Hill:

“But on the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine what would drive someone to murder three people over something so stupid, unless the murderer for some reason did not see his victims as full humans deserving of the right to life.”

Well, people do kill each other over really silly things. You live in the USA, Rebecca. Do you not watch the news? Is his general attitude to his neighbours not a clue that it could well have been over a stupid parking lot? Personal space boundaries have been known to be a point of dispute that incites violence.

“And if you have paid any attention to the current state of capital-A-Atheism, you would have to see the growing problem with the continued dehumanization of Muslims, women, and other marginalized groups by community leaders like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Lawrence Krauss, the organizations that support them with awards and speaking engagements, and the mass of young and angry atheists on sites like Reddit.”

This is just fucking bullshit. The real story here is #ElevatorGate payback, with some #GamerGate thrown in.

Basically FtB and Skepchick and others don’t like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, and anyone who might complain about the excessive abuse they get – so now Michael Nugent is a target at FtB (when they aren’t pretending to ignore him – count the ‘Not Listening’ posts). Lawrence Krauss has upset them in the past, and being a buddy of Dawkins that puts him in the same pile. Jerry Coyne is sometimes a target, but the Coyne/Myers non-exchanges often have a biology/evolution twist. It’s a long story.

“That’s how the “men’s rights movement” led to …”

Oh, yeah, there’s that too.

And this:

“Knowing what we know about the end result of dehumanization combined with violent rhetoric, maybe it’s time that atheists as a group decide to retire this cartoon, which may have been true once but hasn’t been relevant at least since Dawkins started Tweeting about why women who don’t abort fetuses with Downs Syndrome are immoral:”


This is disgraceful opportunism from Rebecca Watson.

The cartoon is still true, because of course what Dawkins was saying was nothing to do with New Atheist criticism of Islam, and much less to do with Chapel Hill.

Dawkins was not saying women who don’t abort foetuses with Downs Syndrome are immoral. His point on Downs Syndrome was that the decision to abort is a difficult one, and that we shouldn’t be judgemental about anyone choosing to abort a Downs Syndrome foetus, and that one can even argue there’s some moral argument for not putting the mother or the child through the inevitable tough life ahead. Pointing out a morally positive reason one might want to abort is not declaring that people that don’t abort are immoral, but rather pointing out the moral dilemma that has no easy solution because there are arguments either way.

The crazy thing, and the reason you can tell it’s an old vendetta at work here, is that Watson is pro-choice too. If you’re pro-choice the woman doesn’t even need an additional justification for aborting a foetus. Dawkins was simply making a case that would help those struggling with the choice of aborting in some cases. It’s a bit like when Krauss questioned the moral objection to incest – Yuk! Some topics are beyond the pale for #PseudoLiberals.

The hypocrisy here is unbelievable. So quick to denounce Dawkins for tweets that can be maliciously interpreted, when it is they that have done the malicious interpretation. And then Watson has a whole post in which the only clear reading of that post is that it has nothing to do with Chapel Hill or atheism.

Chapel Hill? An opportunity not to be missed.

Mehdi Hasan

An old time Muslim #Greenwaldian. A democratic liberal secular Muslim that raises many good social issues, but in his defence of his Islam isn’t above coming out with the same old incorrect stuff about New Atheist.

Here’s a post based on his Facebook page, where he wrote along side a link to a piece on the Chapel Hill shooting:

“Will we now see lots of pieces calling for ‘reform’ of New Atheism and a search for ‘moderate’ New Atheists? ‪#‎justasking‬”.

As if there is any doctrine to reform – unlike Islam. Hicks has never, to my knowledge, made any racist or personal attacks on Muslims for being Muslims. His attack on those people certainly has no relationships to anything New Atheists say or do, and he didn’t declare he was doing it in the name of New Atheism. Did Hicks have some screwed-up notion that his parking lot problem was related to what her perceived as Islamic influenced right to parking lots? Who the fuck knows what was going through his head. But so many #PseudoLiberals link this to New Atheism (oh, but not Greenwald atheism, no) while denying #CharlieHebdo killers were Muslims or that it had anything to do with Islam, while those killers vocalised their Islamic reasons. Fucking incredible.

Cenk Uygur

I didn’t expect this. Maybe I haven’t been paying attention to Cenk because I’ve focused on the TYT general political issues.

I saw Cenk engaged in a studio shake down of Sam Harris, with some of the usual crew and some other guy I couldn’t recall, but who it turns out was CJ Werleman (more below). Then I saw him let Reza Aslan have an easy time telling his lies. And, in a return interview with Harris, Cenk really grilled Harris.

My complaint isn’t about the grilling of Harris. Cenk sorta did his job that day, though by then it was obvious the interview was loaded with Cenk’s preconceptions about Harris, confirmed for him, I’m sure, in the Aslan interview. But he let Aslan take him on a stroll through the anti-Harris park with barely a quizzical glance.

Cenk made the point somewhere, about his uncle being a Muslim and how he’s just an ordinary nice guy, and I thought, yeah, emotion is in control there. Of course you love your Muslim family, and yeah, they are living a ‘normal’ life of not engaging in the crazy shit that’s in the Quran and the Hadith – but that doesn’t get Islam, which is the Quran and Hadith, off the hook; and it’s the Quran and Hadith that Harris is criticising, not your deal old uncle and all the other ordinary people that happen to have been indoctrinated into Islam. Cenk, you numbskull, you criticise conservatism politics, but you know damned well not all conservatives are total dicks. Don’t you think Harris understands this distinction between Islam and most Muslims?

Apparently you don’t:

Another point Cenk made was he hadn’t read much of Harris; and yet he could tell us what he thought Harris thought and said, based then on what some other people (Greenwald, Werleman, Aslan, …) had to say about Harris – hearsay passes for research then on TYT?

Harris is not the Muslim hating bigot Aslan (and Greenwald) make out – far from it, it’s his humanism that sparks his criticism of Islam because Islam contains the dogma so easily turned to hate and violence. But Cenk bought into the Aslan message.

[Update: Later, Cenk has a partial meltdown: Cenk Uygur Is Losing His Grip On Reality?

C.J. Werleman [Added July 2015]

Boy, has this guy made a scene. He first came to my attention on the Cenk Uygur show mentioned above, though I just passed him off as some bizarre dick that had totally misunderstood New Atheism. I was actually puzzled why Cenk was giving him so much space without pulling him up on his errors. Turns out CJ was speaking Cenks already made up mind for him.

Anyway, CJ has had plenty of incorrect things to say about New Atheists, particularly Harris, and has lots of retweets by the others: Aslan and Greenwald especially.

But it didn’t take long to find out first that CJ had been engaged in plagiarism. That lost him some retweeters. But when it came to shooting down Harris, his wing men could be relied upon to watch out for him.

But then it turns out CJ has history. And, the fucking hypocrite, a history of racist abuse of Muslims and Arabs. Now, why this wasn’t enough to cause Aslan and Greenwald to bale out on him is a mystery of the #PseudoLiberal mind-set: ideology.

Just in case you’re not sure how sick CJ is, try this:

Now I know Piers Morgan is subject to near universal ridicule, but relishing someone’s suffering is precisely the sort of thing that the reddit crowd regularly get called out on from #PseudoLiberals.

To give a flavour of CJ’s rhetoric on New Atheism, try this recent tweet (July 2015):

New Atheists have rape rescue fantasies now? Opportunistic sickness.

How about this:

Well, this one is CJ continuing with the lie that Harris wants to bomb Muslims. He does not. CJ simply reads what he wants to when Harris is explaining how fucked up the world will be if Iran gets the bomb. The world seems to agree in that most of the world is backing the recent agreement with Iran to not build the bomb. Nuance doesn’t count if it’s not #PseudoLiberal #PseudoNuance.

You don’t believe me? Try this one that CJ retweeted from another goof:

The US killing of Muslims and the criticism of Islam are not mutually exclusive. Of course that criticism of Islam is supposed to be equivalent to thinking all Muslims are mad. #PseudoLiberal #PseudoNuance. And, to be clear, on top of the false equivalence, ‘mad’ isn’t a particularly nuanced word either. There is a sense of madness, as in mentally deranged, in much of what ISIS do, and in many of the mixed up ideas that Muslims have to juggle with in their heads if they are to hold true to Islam. Flying horses and shit is pretty fucked up. To be fair, so is zombie Jesus. Religions are generally irrational in many respects, while the believers are usually rational in all other respects – that’s the capacity of human minds to hold onto contradictory beliefs.

Robert Wright

Not in the same league as Greenwald and Aslan, but takes the opportunity to have a pop at Harris when he can.

Here he uses an interview with Michael Shermer, on Shermer’s book, to demonise Harris and New Atheists for offending people. And in the same interview says there are times when straight talking is needed. What you find with these #PseudoLiberals is that they are good on criticism of New Atheists while still holding to much of the atheist criticism of religion, but they don’t offer any solution that goes beyond shutting up so as not to offend.

Cal Colgan

Cal Colgan is a #Greenwaldian that thinks along the same lines.

He tweeted:

““New Atheist” idiots are turning nonbelief into the very violent fanaticism they oppose. We atheists shd condemn this [link]”.

Colgan is a researcher for Media Matters, according to his Twitter bio. And Media Matters is about …

“to systematically monitor a cross section of print, broadcast, cable, radio, and Internet media outlets for conservative misinformation – news or commentary that is not accurate, reliable, or credible and that forwards the conservative agenda.”

Guess it must have been Cal’s day off doing research challenging misinformation, unreliability, inaccuracy. Great job Cal.

You can see more of that conversation here.

Rabah Kherbane

Not someone I’d class as a liberal, though he’s into human rights. Deserves an honorary mention for the headline:

Chapel Hill Shooting: How Many More Until We Realise This Is A Trend?

I don’t know. Hicks is one, so will two do it for you Rabah? No doubt you’ll wait in hope for the next martyrs. If not two, then how about as many as this: Islamic Terrorist Attacks. Let me know when we evil New Atheists are close.

Johnny Spooner [Added July 2015]

UPDATE: A few days later and the pinned tweet mentioned below has gone. Still tweets that Bill Maher is an atheist bigot, including CJ and Reza. So, still on the list.

Now, to be fair, I’m adding Johnny because he has been a typical CJ acolyte. His twitter account really does deserve a mention. However, I had a recent twitter exchange with him, in which I laid out where his misunderstanding of New Atheism (I’m guessing acquired from tits like CJ rather than from actually reading New Atheists – an all too common problem), and he left it with saying he had something to think about.

Now, seeing his twitter account today, it would be a fucking miracle of outstanding proportions if he changed his view, of New Atheists or CJ Weirdman, but if he did it would be hats off to him for having the balls to do it. We’ll see. I’ll come back here and edit this if he does.

For now, here’s his pinned top tweet:


So, yet again, Hicks, committing an act totally antithetical to what New Atheist believe, is compared with the fucking atrociously tragic craziness in Israel and Palestine, where a militarily powerful democratic government infected with lunatic fanatical Jewish fantasies over promised land is surrounded by states that deny the holocaust and want all Jews dead, and is in an unbalanced conflict with a militarily under-powered but not powerless bunch of terrorists, among a hopelessly vulnerable population, many carrying the baggage of fanatical Palestinian fantasies over promised land. Israel is threatened with extinction, and in defending itself it is allowing (not seriously preventing, and possibly encouraging) the commitment of atrocities by its forces. Totally fucked up situation, on both sides.

Trying to make that equivalence, just to have a dig at New Atheists? That is so fucking sick in it’s #PseudoLiberal fanaticism it beggars belief. But it’s right there on twitter.

And the fucking irony? I offered this:


And he had the nerve to reply, “Cop-out”.

I got started with Johnny after this:

It turns out that he thinks UKIP’s Anne Marie Waters is a New Atheist. News to me. He bases it on her criticism of Islam? Seems to ignore that she also claims to hold to democracy, freedom, blah, blah, blah, and many other principle that New Atheists, I, Johhny and even wacko CJ hold to. By this train of logic it seems we are all neo-con fascists for sharing some ideas. Wow. #PseudoLiberal #PseudoNuance.

Never mind, any opportunity to roll out one’s ideological biases. Fuck the facts. Fuck nuance. Unless they are #PseudoLiberal #PseudoFacts (half truths) and #PseudoNuance.

I hope Johnny makes it back from the dark side. Of course, currently, listening to CJ, Glenn, Reza, Cenk, we are the dark side. We just have to keep slogging away clearing up the shite that CJ, Glenn, Reza, Cenk are throwing at the fan, and hoping people like Johnny are open to being cleansed of it.

Cal Colgan Blames New Atheists for Chapel Hill Shooting

Here’s an idiotic tweet from @calcolgan, ironically calling out his imagined idiocy of others:

4:25 PM – 12 Feb 2015
“New Atheist” idiots are turning nonbelief into the very violent fanaticism they oppose. We atheists shd condemn this http://nyti.ms/1FyYOqN

From a twitter exchange this is what he thinks about the #ChapelHillShooting:

  • Colgan says New Atheists idiots have turned non-belief into violent fanatcism.
  • Colgan claims there’ve been numerous violent atheists – and is asked which ones.
  • Colgan responds with: What about state sponsored terrorism.
  • Colgan complains that New Atheists focus on Islam.
  • Colgan accuses Hitchens of supporting the war in Iraq because he and other New Atheists want to kill off Islam.
  • Colgan implies that Harris and Dawkins think all religious people are terrorists, “Doesn’t mean all religious ppl are potential terrorists.”

Nowehere does he actually back up his claims that:

  • New Atheists are turning non-belief into violent fanaticism
  • That Dawkins and Harris are somehow at fault for focusing on religion and Islam specifically
  • That Hitchens backed the war in Iraq because he wanted to kill off Islam
  • That any New Atheist has remotely suggested that all religious people are terrorists.

The New Atheists I’ve come across have been humanists, and some are subscribing Humanists through various national and international organisations.

I don’t know of any atheists, new or otherwise, that have committed violence in the name of atheism or New Atheism; and in fact violence is antithetical to their humanist beliefs. I can understand why Colgan would be dismayed at such people turning non-belief into violent fanaticism, if only they had. But of course they haven’t. It’s all in Colgan’s head. And remember, this Colgan calamity came out of the #ChapelHillShooting, and the investigation has yet to reveal the actual motivation of Hicks the shooter – unlike the many terrorist attacks by Muslims (NOT ALL MUSLIMS!) where we know the motivation, done explicitly in the name of Islam, often with quotes from Islamic texts to justify the attacks.

He’s right on state sponsored terrorism of course, in that the US and allies have done some atrocious things. And New Atheist humanists object to them as much as anyone, even if much of their public writing has other targets. So why is Colgan providing state sponsored terrorism as an example of the numerous atheists (or New Atheists) performing terror acts in response to the works of Dawkins and Harris – I don’t recall any reports from Wikileaks of clandestine activities quoting Dawkins or Harris.

And though Dawkins and Harris do focus on Islam rather than state sponsored terrorism, why does that mean that they should not criticise religion, or Islam specifically, when the religious doctrines advocate anti-humanist, anti-liberal, anti-democratic presscriptions, and in the case of Islam, actual violence, oppression and terror. If Dawkins and Harris have their specific concerns about religion, and feel that great journalists like Glenn Greenwald, and of course Cal Colgan, have state sponsored terrorism covered, what exactly is Colgan’s beef?

I mean, it’s not as if Islam is not a source of terror. If Colgan thinks state actions constitute terror, then why not religious rules that prescribe (and in some Islamic states result in) death for apostasy – how is that not a tool of terror. How are blasphemy laws not a tool of terror when laced with the threat of death? Why does Colgan think Islam gets a pass on these and many other tenets that are explicitly part of the religion? Why do Hadith that prescribe tossing homosexuals off buildings not count as terror threats?

Why single out Islam? Islam isn’t singled out. All religions are criticised. But, in Colgan’s words, let’s be real: the following were done directly in the name of Islam or its prophet in order to inflict terror, suppress criticism, avenge Allah or Mohammed for the insults inflicted upon them:

You wonder why Dawkins and Harris make it all about Islam? because so many Muslims are making terror all about Islam. Of course there are other factors that should be addressed. There are many people around the world with real and legitimate grievances against someone or other, but few do it in such a monolithic manner using the texts of a religion to justify attacking and killing innocent people. I don’t see many Christians rushing to fight for the latest Crusade in defence of Christians persecuted by Muslims.

And here’s Harris, having to spell out how he has spelt it out already,

“Although I clearly stated that I wasn’t claiming that all Muslims adhere to the dogmas I was criticizing; distinguished between jihadists, Islamists, conservatives, and the rest of the Muslim community; and explicitly exempted hundreds of millions of Muslims who don’t take the doctrines about blasphemy, apostasy, jihad, and martyrdom seriously, Affleck and Kristof both insisted that I was disparaging all Muslims as a group.”

It is totally dishonest of Colgan to even imply it as he did.

Another significant point that Colgan misses is that state sponsored terrorism has always been done against the spirit, and usually (though becoming less so) against the law, of the constitutions and principles of all western democracies – and of course Colgan is targeting the US and allies here, but neglects to mention Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and of course Saudi Arabia, and other Islamic states where the doctrine and politics of Islam dictates such terror sponsorship. He also seems to miss the fact that much of the state sponsored terror carried out by the US is in the capable hands of right thinking Christians – ‘In God We Trust’ and all that. Atheists are a minority in the US, and New Atheists an even smaller minority, and none of them, as far as I know, are engaged in or support state sponsored terrorism. Why the fuck does the stupid Colgan associate his claim that New Atheists are inciting violence, with state sponsored terror? He’s deluded himself. Good job. To be honest, I don’t suppose he does think they are associated. It’s more likely he was busy backtracking after a gratuitous opportunistic dig at New Atheists – welcome on board the Greenwaldian bandwagon Cal.

The only belief system providing an explanation for British born, Pakistani heritage, youth travelling into Syria and Iraq is because they have been called to do so by fellow Muslims, to defend and/or spread the Muslim faith, to join the long anticipated Caliphate. It doesn’t matter one holy fuck that the majority of Muslims choose not to follow suit. It matters not a jot that so many Muslims ignore the terror incitement contained in their holy texts, or make pathetic excuses for it in the name of ‘context’, because the incitement remains for the crazy and the gullible to follow, and that’s the nature of the specific problem with Islam, right now, today. The problem with Islam isn’t most Muslims, it’s Islam.

Colgan, your original tweet and follow up is a complete fucking joke. You are making a damned fool of yourself buying into this crazy Greenwaldian double speak. The New Atheists are not inciting violence in any way whatsoever, while the inerrant Quran itself does, along with the Hadith. It is fucking dishonest to try and make the false equivalences you do, between New Atheists and Islamic terrorists, or between New Atheists and state sponsored terror.

As a final appeal to common sense, let me spell out a few of the points again:

  • New Atheist coverage of Islam at the omission of coverage of state sponsored terror is no more an endorsement of state sponsored terror than Glenn Greenwald’s focus on state sponsored terror at the expense of his possible focus on Islamic terror is an implication of his endorsement of Islamic terror.
  • The humanism of the New Atheists’ and their criticism of the anti-humanism of Islam has fuck all to do with some atheist going off on one and killing three Muslims, for whatever reason. Even if it turns out Hicks thinks it was inspired by New Atheism.
  • Blaming New Atheism for Hicks is as as dumb as claiming that someone reading Glenn Greenwald criticism of NSA spying on its citizens was incited to spy on US citizens, and it’s Greenwald’s fault, for criticising spying on US citizens.
  • Is in no way equivalent to the Islamic terrorism that has actual Muslims (SOME MUSLIMS, NOT ALL MUSLIMS! FUCK, HAVE YOU GOT THAT?) declaring they are performing the acts of terror in the name of Islam, using the actual texts of Islam to justify their actions. Because the former has zero incitement to violence but actually opposes it, and while the latter actually incites violence, , as many engage in violence, and while many of its adherents are duplicitous in their denial of it.

Earlier I asked, “Why does Colgan think Islam gets a pass…” I’m sure he doesn’t give Islam a pass really. My guess is he opposes many aspects of Islamic doctrine, just as New Atheists do. So, what’s his problem with New Atheists? Because that’s what his tweet is all about, and precious little to do with Chapel Hill, which is only a convenient outlet for his opinions. I’m not suggesting his sorrow at the event is any less than that of Dawkins or Harris.

The thing is, what you find with many like Colgan, is that they are great on criticism but short on solution. Colgan may think Islam has problems (I doubt he thinks it totally benign in all regards) but he opposes attempts to do anything about it, or interprets the words of the New Atheists in calling for reform in Islam (and note the work of Maajid Nawaz here and his collaboration with Harris) as New Atheist terrorism, racism, bigotry. He’d rather hope the problem goes away than risk offending Muslims. He has no problem offending fellow atheists though. Not that I object to him offending fellow atheists, but I do object to his double standards

Below is a collection of tweets that were used as a source for this post. If any significant ones are missing, or if I’ve misrepresented Colgan’s views as portrayed in his tweets, then I’d be glad to make corrections. If Cal Colgan wants to comment I’d be glad to hear from him.

Hide tweets

4:25 PM – 12 Feb 2015
“New Atheist” idiots are turning nonbelief into the very violent fanaticism they oppose. We atheists shd condemn this http://nyti.ms/1FyYOqN

12:14 AM – 13 Feb 2015
One violent atheist and “idiots are turning non belief into the very violent …” Get some proportion.

7:18 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Let’s be real: There’ve been numerous “violent atheists.” Atheists are only united in our nonbelief.

7:25 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Really? Numerous? Violent against the religious because of their atheism? Which ones? Compared to theists violent FOR religion?

7:39 PM – 13 Feb 2015
I’m not going to get into a tired debate abt how Islam is the chief perveyor of terrorism in the world.

7:40 PM – 13 Feb 2015
If you define terrorism as killing of innocents for political gain, state terrorism by Western govts has higher death toll.

7:40 PM – 13 Feb 2015
But Dawkins, Maher, Harris, et al only seem concerned about Islam, b/c it’s easier to criticize outspoken fanatics than govts.

7:46 PM – 13 Feb 2015
So what? They do do other things of course, but so what? Dawkins is anti-religion because of evo education.

7:47 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Terrorism is intentional killing of innocents, for terror – clue in name. With gvt. it’s usually a fuck up and not primary intent

8:11 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Sigh. I’m not saying theists haven’t committed more violence. But state atheism has lead to millions of deaths as well.

8:12 PM – 13 Feb 2015
The problem isn’t necessarily religion. The problem is the authoritarian manipulation of religion.

8:12 PM – 13 Feb 2015
For every MLK & Malcolm X, there’s a Jon Tiller or Osama bin Laden. Doesn’t mean all religious ppl are potential terrorists.

8:13 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Also, way to downplay the killing of innocent people by govts. Christopher Hitchens would be proud.

8:50 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Actually, he’s right. You made a moral-equivalency argument between ISIS and the US. And what about Hitchens, exactly?

9:18 PM – 13 Feb 2015
I don’t downplay gvt., of US, UK, oh and Islamic Saudi, Islamic Iran. Compare US Constitution with Sharia

9:19 PM – 13 Feb 2015
But go on, give examples of 9/11, 7/7, Madrid, embassies, …, by US/UK

9:21 PM – 13 Feb 2015
1.) US has been around longer than ISIS. Not saying savagery is the same. Proportionality of violence different.

9:22 PM – 13 Feb 2015
2.) Hitchens famously defended the Iraq War, and other New Atheists defended it b/c “Islam needs to die.”

9:23 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Sure. 9/11/73: CIA-funded military coup of Chile resulted in fascist dictatorship. Thousands died ovr next 10 yrs.

9:23 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Proportional to capability. You think ISIS wouldn’t do more if it could?

9:24 PM – 13 Feb 2015
30,000 ppl slaughtered in Argentina’s Dirty War. CIA trained right wing gov’t.

9:25 PM – 13 Feb 2015
So nothing to do with Chilean get. And Mid East nothing to do with Iraq,Iran,Saudi,… All down to US?

9:25 PM – 13 Feb 2015
1982 — priests were killed & nuns were raped & killed by CIA-funded AUC death squad in Colombia.

9:26 PM – 13 Feb 2015
You’re mincing words. Didn’t say Mid-East has nothing to do with it, but US, Britain, France played big part in chaos

9:26 PM – 13 Feb 2015
All states meddle where they can. Just that some have more power. Not excusing it, but not all down to US

9:27 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Never said it’s all down to US. Funny how you make blanket criticisms of Islam & then defend US state terrorism

9:27 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Supporting Taliban, then opposing them? Yeah, got’ fuck up.

9:28 PM – 13 Feb 2015
But still, where in Constitution is that justified. Quran/Hadith EXPLCITLY incite violence and oppression.

9:29 PM – 13 Feb 2015
All states play part in chaos. So, your point then is what?

9:30 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Again, where in US constitution, UK law, is justification for control of belief (apostasy) criticism (blasphemy)

9:31 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Quran is claimed to be inerrant. So ISIS has good claim to be following it. More so than moderates.

9:33 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Nowhere, but Founders also went through with 1798 Alien & Sedition Acts — 7 yrs after Bill of Rights passed.

9:36 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Where have I defended it?

9:38 PM – 13 Feb 2015
And the blanket criticism of Islam is because this is in all versions of Quran: http://quran.com/24/2 So, yes.

9:39 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Like I said, US ‘terror’ is failure to comply with own constitution. ISIS is complying with Islam.

9:42 PM – 13 Feb 2015
U twist my blanket crit of Islam for “all relig ppl terrorists” Where’ve I seen that misrep. before. Reza Aslan, Glenn Greenwald?

9:47 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Sigh. I’m not saying state action doesn’t. So we agree then. Islam bad. Not all Muslims bad. Some state acts bad.

9:49 PM – 13 Feb 2015
“The problem isn’t necessarily religion.” Yes it is. Read violence in Quran.

9:50 PM – 13 Feb 2015
“Authoritarian manipulation”? LOL. Religon IS authoritarian. Apostasy. Blasphemy. Lashes. Stoning. What are they?

9:51 PM – 13 Feb 2015
“School of Americas, and the Contras didn’t intentionally kill innocents?” Where did I say that?

10:35 PM – 13 Feb 2015
And Hitchens spent his life trying to get the parties responsible to face accountability–he made a movie about it!

10:40 PM – 13 Feb 2015
The Founders? Hm, I guess Jefferson and Madison (who greatly opposed the A&S Acts) weren’t “Founders”.

View tweets

New Atheism

New Atheism is being subjected to attacks, and it’s clear from those attacks, from what the critics say, that many really don’t understand New Atheism, and in many cases haven’t read what New Atheists actually say, but rather rely on what other opponents say New Atheists say. There are descriptions of New Atheism around the internet, but many of them don’t really explain what is being missed. So, here’s my take.

I’m focusing on New Atheism here, rather than atheism generally, or humanism, or Atheism Plus (A+), because it is so often attacked by some members of these other atheist groups, by #LimpLogicLiberals, #PseudoLiberals, as well as by theists.

New Atheism is the label assigned to atheists that are more vocal in their criticism of religion. It’s not a self-appointed label, but one that those labelled with it accept as being in common use. Some don’t particularly like the label, but accept they are stuck with it. In most respects they are not saying anything new that all atheists say, when it comes to belief in God; and they aren’t all that more critical of religion than many earlier atheists. What seems to get peoples backs up about them is their ‘stridency’, and the fact that they have it in for Islam. Now all this has arisen since 9/11 in 2001, which was a turning point.

The current two New Atheists that get most stick are Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Hitchens is dead, and Dennett is rather mild mannered by comparison. Jerry Coyne has taken up the mantle to some extent. He, like Dawkins, leans towards the educational aspect as well as the wider social implications of religion – he, like Dawkins, opposes the prevalence of Creationism and the rejection of Evolution in schools. Both criticise the Christian Creationism in the US; and Dawkins also covers Islamic Creationism in the UK, particularly in relation to the move towards religiously controlled schools that sneak creationism in, or blatantly push it while rejecting Evolution.

Then there are many less prominent but public figures who could be called New Atheists – so Stephen Pinker is one that finds himself grouped with the New Atheists, whether he likes it or not, because he writes stuff that often includes a science based criticism of irrational belief; and Michael Shermer is another, more in the Skeptical community, though he has critics in the self-styled A+, Feminist, Skeptical community; and Michael Nugent, who focuses on religion in Ireland, but expresses many of the same views as the New Atheists, and also might be lumped in with them for also being attacked by the A+ crowed.

And then there are the many nobodies such as myself, that haunt the internet putting theist straight in their foolish ways.

One problem for anyone trying to get a handle on New Atheism is that, despite the common claim by opponents, it is not a religion or a singular political belief system, or an ideology – there is no New Atheist doctrine or text. It is the amalgamation of a number of beliefs, or more realistically, a number of adaptive processes for coming to beliefs, and as such it is comfortable with allowing for difference of belief and changes to belief. And, just to emphasise the ‘adaptive’ aspect, since the views of New Atheists are based on reason and evidence, those views are subject to change – they are contingent on evidence in particular. Show with good evidence that some ‘intellect’, some extra-universal agency actually creates universes and they will take that evidence seriously, if cautiously at first. Some may be pretty confident in their atheism that they express more concrete rejection of theism, but like I said, New Atheism isn’t a cut and dried label.

One way of describing New Atheism is to observe its relationship to other strands of thought:

Humanism – While many New Atheists are Humanists, in that they subscribed to Humanist organisations, national or international (Dawkins is a member of the BHA), all of them that I have come across are at least humanists, small ‘h’, in that they support humanist beliefs.

Humanist organisations tend to spell out their beliefs, in something like a Humanist Manifesto: proposals or agreed tenets of behaviour worked out using some of the principles above, but they are not tenets of absolute belief, the way tenets of a religion might be. That’s not to say that some humanists don’t hold to them as if they are absolute. You will find some humanists declaring Human Rights to be absolute, but I’d argue with that. Our rights are contingent upon our feelings as evolved and culturally developed humans, and as such can vary with culture, and could have varied further had we humans arrived here with different evolved feelings.

If you look at this list, on Humanist Manifesto III, you’ll see that it pretty much covers the rest of the items below. Humanist organisations tend to be more politically active, while the prominent New Atheists may be included in that activism, they are better known for their own unaffiliated works.

Science – Typically there is an agreement that science can reveal much more about the world, and about humans, than mere navel gazing or inventing magical entities that reveal knowledge ready made. There is much confusion here, caused by humanists, and some Humanists, that while not anti-science intentionally, do a great disservice to humanism by crying about ‘scientism’. No current New Atheist I know claims that science actually has the answer to all our problems. They simply don’t – ask them. The claim that New Atheists think ‘science knows everything’ or that ‘science can answer all problems’ is one of those false attributions, straw men, that others accuse New Atheists of.

What New Atheists will tend to say is that science, now, or in the future, is a set of methodologies that offers the best way to come to understand the world and humans. None of them I know of deny totally the value of the arts of various kinds – and in fact many, maybe most, value the arts greatly. And on balance I’d say that scientifically educated and professional scientist New Atheists appreciate the arts far more than many of their non-science critics appreciate science. In fact many of their critics are quite ignorant of many aspects of science, especially its general nature. This is a bone of contention with theists and philosophers typically, but also with some non-sciency liberal journalists: they ignorantly think scientists don’t appreciate art, while often being spectacularly ignorant of science themselves.

Science is the result of humans using their natural evolved faculties of the senses and reason, and applying those more rigorously, often with the aid of instruments and mathematics, in order to enhance the range data gathered and analysis of data that comes from being more rigorous. Science is not some extra-human realm of magic. All humans are in principle capable of learning and challenging any claim made in science. New Atheists tend to expand the use of the term ‘science’, certainly to include many of the social sciences, but also to include straight forward observation and common sense – with the caveat that the raw unrigorous natural human faculties can be so fallible that where possible the methods of science should be used to test our hypotheses.

It’s such a broad and inclusive description that one wonders why anyone would object to it. But some do, for the expedient purpose of objecting to New Atheist criticism of their religion or their philosophy.

This broad science approach is in contrast to religion, where all its significant claims about knowledge are based on the imagination of some magical entity revealing knowledge to humans, often particular humans.

This also contrasts with pure reason of philosophy, where the mind is the only tool of significance. Of course even the most Rationalist or Idealist philosopher bases all he knows on empirical observation. And the most supernaturalist Christian or Muslim theist relies on the empirical observation of the content of a book (for all they take too much from it). But that’s not always appreciated. The most extreme critics of the sciency approach, those that cry ‘scientism’, use the same approach too, but badly, and in such a way they think they are engaging in ‘other ways of knowing’. This seems somewhat delusional, for there is zero evidence of other ways of knowing beyond the use of our senses and reasoning about what we observe.

But back to science and its influence on New Atheism. So, what science does, even in its most basic form of observing the world and reasoning about it, is it reveals something very significant: science is hard work, and the results are not always easy to interpret, and ideas may change over time as new data comes in.

And this is a foundational appreciation of the nature of reality and the human condition. We are learning as we go.

On that basis, and based on where science is now, we can say no human has any knowledge about how the universe came into being, despite a few centuries of trying to figure that out, and a few millennia of the religious claiming they already found out. There is zero data to support any notion of some supernatural being; and while there is no evidence to exclude one there is also no evidence to exclude multiple supernatural beings, a hierarchy, of hypernatural, superhypernatural, or any other source of beings. There is zero evidence that the intelligence ascribed to such imaginary beings exists in any form, other than the form we experience in ourselves.

But, despite this overwhelming lack of any data about gods of any kind, the contingent nature of knowledge on future developments is such a compelling idea that New Atheists informed by science are pretty much compelled to hold that no human has all the answers to all the questions we ask, and therefore it is reasonable to accept, even encourage, a variety of thought, even if that leads to mistaken beliefs sometimes.

Freedom of Belief – The above idea alone, of the contingency and fluidity of accurate knowledge, is sufficient for New Atheists to support the freedom of belief. But add to that the general humanist principle that all humans are valuable, then all together New Atheists have nothing that would lead them to persecute people for any of the varieties of form that humans come in – skin colour, place of and parentage of origin on earth (race), sexual orientation.

Religion is set of belief systems that New Atheists do not hold with, and based on the above, New Atheists find religions to be loaded with bad ideas. But from a humanist and observational perspective it is clear that most believers are indoctrinated into their religious beliefs from being children. Additionally there are many charismatic con men out there that can easily turn the unwary to pretty much any religious belief, so even adulthood is not protection from erroneous belief. And even New Atheists acknowledge many natural cultural human biases that can deflect their own thinking from the best reasoned path. So, it would seem at least cruel, to blame all theists for their beliefs, or to blame anyone entirely for whatever they come to believe.

So all-in-all New Atheists have every reason to support the freedom of belief.

The humanism, contingency of knowledge and the freedom of belief lead New Atheists to another principle:

Secularism – Secularism isn’t atheism, though it is often passed off as such. Secularism is the disassociation of power from belief, particularly political power. In specifically that leads to the separation of church and state, the most common expression of secularism and that which is included in some Humanist ‘manifestos’

Secularism allows people of varying beliefs to engage in any requirements their belief systems have, without favour or privilege and without persecution. Keeping belief systems as far away from state power as possible prevents the persecution of non-state-validated belief systems.

This is difficult of course, because states use powers, and some of those powers will inevitably align with some belief system and not with others, while at the same time some other powers might align with different belief systems. It’s difficult not to restrict state power to the lowest common denominator, which means no power, without enabling chaos and violence in the name of belief systems to proceed unchecked. Some degree of state power and policing is necessary in order to then allow as much individual freedom as possible. While the Golden Rule is the most commonly acknowledge lowest common denominator it isn’t universal agreed upon, particularly by religions that profess that their God insists they should interfere in the lives of non-believers. But this latter case is a very good reason for endorsing secularism, unless you follow the religion in power.

There are many believers that appreciate this dilemma, of balancing freedom of belief with the freedom to impose your beliefs on others, and so there are many religious believers that subscribe to secularism as the separation of church and state – though of course confusion ensues because some of those same theists use the term secularism to refer to atheism and the loss of religious privilege that exists for their religion.

All this isn’t to say that New Atheists are the sole torch bearers for atheism, humanism, secularism, science and scepticism. There are members of the liberal elite that support all those but are also engaged in a diatribe of abuse and misrepresentation of New Atheists. But more on those another time. For now, that’s my summary of New Atheism – or how I see New Atheism, in myself and in the expressed views of people like Dawkins and Harris.

This is presented as a separate thing, and is discussed and engaged in in terms of the ‘Sceptical Community’ (Skeptical in the US). It too is a bit of an amalgamation of approaches, but emphasises scepticism and often targets religion, but is also critical of the paranormal – so JREF and CFI are typical of this wider focus. But of course, scepticism is a natural feature of a good science based approach to knowledge, and a feature of New Atheist thinking.

Clarifying Some Points

The prominent New Atheists are even somewhat reluctant to call themselves New Atheists, though some accept the label for want of a better one.

Opponents of New Atheism make various claims about New Atheism or New Atheists that are simply untrue. In an attempt to clarify some specific points I present the following.

Is New Atheism a belief system? Not as such, in that it has no beliefs set in stone. But it does look for evidence to inform and support beliefs. But then those beliefs are contingent and subject to improvement. They are contingent conclusions of a method of thinking and observing the world, and are not something that we start out with. Having said that it’s quite possible that the same beliefs were arrived at by other means, along with many mistaken beliefs, and that New Atheism methods have trimmed our beliefs down to some set that we think most reliable, for now.

Is New Atheism a political movement? Not explicitly, and the most prominent New Atheists are generally scientists and philosophers rather than politicians. But in other capacities they engage in social and political change – for example, by being members of organisations like the British Humanist Association, which does lobby politicians for social change – or they object to the neglect and abuse of science in education.

It is fair to say New Atheists are anti-religion. Though they generally acknowledge that many people can use religion for entirely good purposes, the method of belief, using faith and relying on presuppositions declared in ancient texts, is such an unreliable guide to knowledge that it can be so easily turned to hate, oppression and terror – and much of the effort of New Atheists is engaged in pointing out these faults. This is the extent to which they are anti-religion.

It is fair to say that New Atheists are anti-theists. This is somewhat less of a social and political position than is being anti-religion – more of a science and philosophy take on the absence of any evidence to support the beliefs of the dominant religions, or any religions for that matter. The New Atheist approach also includes explanations on what is clearly the poor reasoning of many of the religious. Some philosophers object because they think they see some presuppositions at work – but generally those presuppositions are both reasonable, and can be backed up with yet more argument from observations about the world.

Are New Atheists racists? No. While not wishing to make any absolute statement, this is about as close as we might get to one. There is the positive belief, as a conclusion of contemplating humanism, evolution, biology, that race is a rather poor distinguishing factor. Race is often interpreted through the visual appearances of skin colour and cultural identity, but given that those alone make no significant distinction between humans, New Atheists are thorough anti-racists. Of course any human can have racist tendencies that they hide or suppress, so it’s not beyond doubt that all New Atheists are not racists – but then this applies to all humans, including the critics of New Atheists.

All the charges of racism I’ve seen aimed at new Atheists have been just actual lies, or lies by conflating religion with race. The latter is actually a racist move in itself, for it is explicitly these opponents that are identifying people of a religion with race, while the New Atheists make the distinction. And of course New Atheists have many anti-religious atheist allies that would be from the same genetic background as the supposed targets of New Atheist racism, but let’s not mention that in the presence of the hypocrites.

There have been and continue to be some despicable claims made that the criticism of Islam by New Atheists is racist. This is at best understandable coming from people of different cultures that have been subject to racism because of their culture, religion or skin colour – it’s easy to be consumed by the anti-western rhetoric and a complete misunderstanding of New Atheism. It’s understandable that Muslims will object to their faith being criticised, though there are many examples of Muslims lying boldly about what atheists say, and about New Atheists like Dawkins and Harris. But the most heinous lies come from fellow atheists, and those of the A+ agenda, or the #LimpLogicLiberals, the #PseudoLiberals, that have a factional axe to grind. Most commonly this lie is perpetuated by the likes of Glenn Greenwald, and is even bought into by otherwise rational people like Cenk Uygur, at the behest of the lying Reza Aslan. It may seem extreme to call out such people as purveyors of lies, but there’s plenty of evidence for such a claim.

Some Sources

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
I disagree with a few things here, but overall it’s a fair description. I disagree particularly with the section 5, on Secular Morality. I disagree with its take on morality, and to some extent disagree with its take on what New Atheists think about morality. But I can go into that again some time. Section 8, on criticisms, gives the impression that most of it is epistemological and philosophical generally, but it fails to engage with the criticism from other liberal atheists that might have much the same philosophical perspective that the New Atheists have, where criticism is directed firmly, if unjustifiably in my view, at the approach New Atheists take to the criticism of religion, and of Islam in particular.

Good old Wikipedia
A common complaint is that New Atheists present too literal a view of religion – a point made by, who else, but the more sophisticated theologian that doesn’t buy the literalist take on the Bible and Quran. But the real issue here is that it is they, the sophisticates, that are in the minority in religious belief, in that sufficient Christians and Muslims hold to enough of the bad ideas in their holy texts to make the New Atheist criticism currently salient to the social effects of religion. And then there’s that totally fucked up opinion from Noam Chomsky. In what sense is writing a few books and appearing at speaking events or on TV ‘bludgeoning’ anyone? Its exactly the sort of freedom of expression that Chomsky engages in when he publishes his views. It is precisely not the ‘bludgeoning’ act of imposing apostasy, blasphemy, heresy rulings and punishments on people that religions engage in. The New Atheist rhetoric may be blunt, to the point, and direct, unlike the slimy slippery language of the religious, but that is one of its great features – the clarity of thought and reasoning from New Atheists outshines the fluff and magic of religion, and much of the philosophical hang wringing of people like Chomsky. And of course we can rely on the usual unsubstantiated claims of New Atheist bigotry, often from supporters of religious bigotry – it’s always a good move to convince your fellow theists that the atheist opposition is exactly what has been aimed at your religion, so much so that in Islam there’s a term for this common method: Takfir. Look it up.

Rational Wiki
This is a mixed site, with some good stuff, but also with an agenda in the mind of its creator. And it can get a little dated. For example, as well as listing the four horsemen, it also adds PC Myers as a ‘partner in crime’. Well, that ship has sailed. PZ Myers is one of the A+ members most critical of Dawkins and Harris, and the followers of Myers are about as anti-Dawkins and anti-Harris as you can get. But these guys are a whole other story.

Yes Mehdi Hasan, I Condem Those Atheists Texts Calling for Lashes, Stoning, Death

Mehdi Hasan is up to his usual rhetorical tricks.

On his Facebook page he links to the Richard Dawkins comments in the Huffington Post piece: Atheist Richard Dawkins Condemns Chapel Hill Shootings Of Three Muslim Students.

His comment accompanying the post:

Will we now see lots of pieces calling for ‘reform’ of New Atheism and a search for ‘moderate’ New Atheists? ‪#‎justasking‬

So, Mehdi, if you think New Atheism is in need of reform, can you point to the New Atheist scriptures that Craig Hicks might have followed in order to justify the killing?

Can you point to New Atheist scripture that demands lashes for sex outside marriage, or stoning of adulterers? Can you point to any New Atheist scriptures that denounce atheists for apostasy, for those converting to Islam or Christianity?

Islam needs reforming so that the barbaric tenets contained in the Quran and Hadith cannot be used as an excuse to commit violence in the name of Islam.

What exactly do you think there is in New Atheism that needs reforming? You want ‘moderate’ New Atheists? New Atheism is already moderate: free speech, freedom of belief, no special privilege for any belief systems, secular government (not Christian, not Islamic, not atheist, …). There are no ‘apostasy’ rules trying to prevent atheists becoming believers. There are no ‘blasphemy’ rules denouncing anti-atheist rhetoric. There’s no lashing for sex outside marriage; no stoning of adulterers.

Exactly what reforms would you like, Mehdi?

I think I get it, you’re just whining because your precious prophet is lampooned? You don’t like to see outsiders criticise your faith?


Mehdi Hasan, like many Muslims commenting on criticisms of Islam, or on the association of self-declared Muslims doing violence in the name of their prophet, isn’t happy that Islam gets the blame when so many self-declared Muslims join ISIS and other organisations. He’s not convinced that Islam is the problem, even when they quote the passages that inspire their violence.

Look, Mehdi isn’t a violent Jihadist, so how can anyone blame Islam?

Well, it’s quite easy to explain. Mehdi and all moderate Muslims that still believe that the Quran is the inerrant word of God are stuck in denial. They have to start making up bullshit excuses about ‘context’ to explain when it’s reasonable to stone a woman to death.

And, as Coel Hellier pointed out in a recent post Mainstream Islam is not moderate.

Can we blame Richard Dawkins for this act by Craig Hicks?

This is one of the most ridiculous posts I’ve seen today:


Adeel Ahmed, you’re misguided.

There are currently many people pointing out that Craig Hicks did this in the name of atheism, that he’s an Atheist terrorist.

I think it quite legitimate to call Hicks a terrorist. It’s quite legitimate to call him an Atheist terrorist, if the reports are confirmed that Craig Hicks did this in the name of Atheism.

But that doesn’t suddenly present some parallel with the case made that Islam is a significant component of the terror committed in the name of Islam. Islam has texts that can be used to justify terrorist acts. Atheism does not. Atheism has very little in the way of doctrine. It is merely the lack of belief in gods. The ‘strident’ New Atheists are merely more outspoken about this and more willing to point out the faults of religions. That doesn’t make atheism amenable to the justification of terrorism. What Hicks has done is not only not justifiable by Atheism, New Atheism, Humanist, Scepticism, it is totally antithetical to everything that Atheists, New Atheists, Humanists and Sceptics tend to believe in.

Does that then mean Muslims have a case too, in denouncing violence in the name of Islam as antithetical to Islam, the religion of peace? No, because the claim that Islam is the religion of peace only applies when Muslims ignore the violent and warlike aspects of Islam.

If you’re an atheist bent on violence you have to depart from the values usually subscribed to by Atheists, New Atheists, Humanists and Sceptics.

If you’re a Muslim bent on violence you can find justification for it in your holy texts.

Do you see the difference? #‎justasking‬.

Here’s a more rational assessment, from Maajid Nawaz. A lesson for Mehdi Hasan.


Josephus on Christianity Is Hearsay

There are a bunch of people building reputations on the historicity of Jesus – whether the man Jesus existed, what he did, what he claimed to do.

Christians want, no, need, Jesus to be a real mortal man, at least, because they depend on that in order to make their next set of claims about his divinity, his miracles, and most of all, the resurrection.

Non-Christian scholars go to great lengths to show not only that the information we have a bout Jesus is unreliable, but in some cases it is so flawed they think he didn’t even exist.

In history it really helps make your case if there are some independent sources that contribute facts to a story to give us some confidence in the story. One area where Christian scholars fail so badly it amounts to professional dishonesty is regard this independent evidence claim.

One source in particular can be relied upon to be behind most claims you hear from Christians if they start telling you there’s ‘plenty’ (a vague often used term) of evidence for the resurrection. When you look at their sources they tend to go something like this:

1 – Many who are not scholars will point to William Lane Craig, and may even give links to his site and some of the pages where he tells us there are ‘plenty’ of independent sources.

2 – When you go to William Lane Craig you will see that he offers Josephus, and Pliny and Tacitus. But the go-to guy in the end is Josephus.

3 – When you’ve gone down this rabbit whole with the Christian and given your reasons why this isn’t independent evidence, they’ll offer some other Christian scholars, who, they assure you, will provide categorical evidence for the resurrection. Of course these sources never do. But where they do claim to be offering evidence you can bet your shirt on it that they will either point to some other source, like William Lane Craig again, or will cite Josephus themselves.

4 – Some Christians will actually try to cite just Josephus – but usually it’s not Josephus directly that they cite but some description of what Josephus contains along with some explanation of why it’s so good. But this is not actually looking at the content of Josephus.

If you’re not familiar with Josephus you could start here: Wikipedia on Josephus

Remember, Josephus was a Jew, captured by Rome, and writing from Rome. Here’s a brief summary with links: Jewish Virtual Library on Josephus. And from there note this: “However, because of Josephus’ proclivity to depend on hearsay and legend, scholars are never sure what to accept as fact.”

Or, you could try this source: Bible Study Tools on Josephus.

Scholarly Opinion on the Reliability Of Extant Josephus Texts

One of the controversies over what is currently available is the extent to which current transcripts are genuine copies of what Josephus actually wrote, or whether they have been modified by Christians to tell a better story. This is the stuff of historical scholarly work – which I’m not qualified to judge, but which has, of course, its Christian non-Christian perspectives.

I am specifically avoiding this angle, because I don’t think it is necessary in order to make my point. And, I have to say, both the Christian and non-Christian scholars seem to be on thin ice. You can judge for your self by reading them – I bet you’ll soon become bored with the detail that makes no difference.

Josephus as Hearsay

I appreciate the historical interests in these old texts, but in the case against Christianity the most obvious criticism of Josephus and other ‘independent’ sources is that they are nothing more than hearsay. Josephus is not evidence for Jesus at all.

At best, if we ignore the controversy of the reliability of the extant texts, then it is nothing more than a report of what Christians were saying they believed.

Whether it’s what Christians reported directly to Josephus, or what Josephus picked up from non-Christian sources telling what Christians were saying, is unknown.

The same is true of course when a Christian source is provided. If a non-Christian hears some stories about Christ, thinks it all sounds pretty good, and becomes a Christian, then this is now a biased Christian source that is peddling what are basically his unreliable sources that made him Christian in the first place.

And so it goes even today.

History Hangs on Threads

This is a problem for history generally. But in most respects it’s unimportant.

I don’t know of anyone today living their lives in such a way that depends categorically on the truth of whether Nero fiddled as Rome burned. If one believed that legend, then came across information that debunks it, it wouldn’t be the end of your world. One has only to say, “Oh well, I was wrong about that.”

Some historical researchers could build academic careers on something that is later debunked. And the same is true in science. But once the facts are establish there’s no hiding place. It may involve the consumption of some humble pie, but then any scholar or researcher worth their salt would get the pie out, and after a hearty meal they’d get on with using the new data.

The Christian Life Based on Hearsay

But in the case of Christianity people build careers and whole lives on the claim that Jesus was God (ignoring theological quibbles on that score) and that he died to save us. All based on nothing better than hearsay.

You go to church, pray to God and Jesus Christ. Maybe you’re a Roman Catholic and you really believe that when the wafer is blessed it turns into the literal body of Christ. Maybe you’re a ‘sophisticated’ theologian and don’t buy any of the high church stuff, but still believe in Jesus Christ, Son of God, and the resurrection.

It’s based entirely on hearsay? Yes!

The words of Jesus? Put into his mouth entirely by the writers of the Gospels. There is zero evidence Jesus said any of it. When reported in the Gospels some time after the death of Jesus (again, we’re not even demanding proof the mortal man existed here) then it is nothing more than hearsay.

It is no less hearsay than anything a Muslim might claim about Mohammed. Muslims can even make a better claim to the historicity of Mohammed – though of course what Mohammed’s followers tell us Mohammed was told by Gabriel, who was instructed by Allah, is several levels of hearsay too.

I don’t think enough is made of this. Christianity is a religion based entirely on hearsay. But Josephus is a Christian trump card they are allowed to get away with far too often.